When My Son Came Out (Part 2)

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Another Thursday ‘adventure’ begins…

This the backstory to when my son, Timothy, came out as gay (here is Part 1).

Timothy and I have always spent a lot of time together.  I stayed home with him full time the year after he was born while Katy finished up her medical residency.  As he grew up I took Thursdays off so we could have what we called ‘big adventures’ (even though they were more like feeding the ducks at the pond).  As time went on, that morphed into ‘hot chocolate walks’ where I’d make him hot chocolate early in the morning and we’d walk around the neighborhood and talk.

One of the things we talked about was sex.  On one ‘hot chocolate walk’ in 6th grade we went through the whole sex ed curriculum that his school was about to do with his class.  On another we talked through pornography and what it is and what to do about it.  By the time he was thirteen I would occasionally ask on a walk about how much skin he was seeing on screens and how it made him feel and which girls he thought were cute.

Gradually I realized the things he was sharing didn’t line up with my experience as a teenager.  He was a lot more pure than I was by far, but that wasn’t what gave me pause.  It was the direction of his impulses, the questions that he was asking, and his persistent lack of interest in girls.  Katy and I would debrief those conversations at night when the kids were in bed, and I started to wonder.  And to dread.

Then the day came.  We’d gone to the Apple Store at the mall and on the way out passed two huge posters of models not wearing much clothing.  I dragged my eyes away from the scantily clad girl in the one in time to notice Timothy absorbed in the scantily clad man in the other.  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  My son is attracted to men.

The story for me splits in two at that point.  One piece of the story is about me and God; the other’s about me and Timothy.

What Happened in my Relationship with Timothy

I realized that Timothy didn’t know how to articulate his sexual development and that it was my job as his father to walk with him on that journey. That meant asking a lot of questions, creating space for him to ask his, and doing a whole lot of listening. As I prayed about it and as Katy and I talked it through, I realized that I did not want to ‘out’ my son to himself. He needed to go on his own journey and figure out his own attractions.  I didn’t push him to make conclusions about himself; instead, over the course of the next 18 months or so I continued to be a conversation partner and I tried to resource him in a number of ways.

One of those ways was to provide some reading material. I started to become aware of some thoughtful authors on Christianity and LGBTQ issues, so I left books around the house and he’d pick them up and we’d talk about them (Love is an Orientation by Marin; Homosexuality and the Christian by Yarhouse, Torn by Lee, Washed and Waiting by Hill). One night he was processing about how his friends were expressing their sexuality, and he was curious if there were other ways to think about attraction, so we talked through the Kinsey Scale (though imperfect, it’s a helpful analytic way to look at sexual attraction on a continuum instead of the usual binary). Since I led the youth discipleship group he was in and they wanted to talk about hot topics, we covered the six main Christian views on the morality of homosexuality.

By this time, our ‘hot chocolate walks’ had transitioned into coffee dates, and the conversations continued to deepen.  Those were rich times, leading up to the conversation at Starbucks I wrote about HERE when he came out to me and Katy.

What Happened in my Relationship with God

The second side of my story was with God. It wasn’t a very pretty season for me spiritually.

I just about lost my faith.

As I think back now, there were three main things going on for me: guilt, fear, and sadness. Like any good American male, I expressed them primarily as anger.

The guilt came from worrying that I had caused Timothy to be gay.  In the 1990s I read all of the Christian reparative therapy material and followed Exodus International closely. It was the company line that a distant father was the primary cause of homosexuality.  Today, even good conservative researchers like Mark Yarhouse have debunked that theory, but I hadn’t read Yarhouse yet.  I was wracked with guilt that I was a terrible father – that I had ruined my beloved son.

The fear came from my experiences with other Christians who had come out as gay – they had all given up their faith. Nothing is more important to me than knowing and loving Jesus, and so I couldn’t imagine anything worse than my son turning away from him. I would lie in my bed at night staring at the ceiling thinking about this – it just about ruined me.

The sadness came from the loss of my dreams.  So many of my dreams for Timothy were dreams that included him being straight.  When he was born I’d written a letter to his future wife.  When he turned 13 we climbed Cloud’s Rest Peak in Yosemite to talk through how to find and court a godly woman.  I was all geared up for the dating talks.  Not to mention dreams of having the ‘traditional’ family. All those dreams evaporated and I was left with wet cheeks and a snotty nose from crying so hard.

Jesus and I had some very direct conversations those months.  Early on I was not above bargaining, begging, screaming, blaming, cursing and threatening.  I said some things to him that I never dreamed of saying to anyone, much less to the living God. I suppose that might come across as childish or theologically immature or perhaps dangerous.  So be it.  I don’t regret it.

For me, there was and is real loss in my son being gay.  It’s not the way I wanted it to be. Facing that reality has been perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and, strangely, I would say that it’s been the very thing that has brought me closer to Timothy and closer to God.

There’s more to this journey that I hope to post in the next week or so.

Read When My Son Came Out (Part 3)

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Ken Korver & Fred Harrell Conversations

I couldn’t believe my ears.  Fred said, “I believe every sin listed in Romans 1 remains a sin today.  I just don’t think one of them is being in a committed same-sex relationship.” What?symposium

That was a comment Fred Harrell made to a group of pastors and seminary students in March of 2015 at a denominational training in San Francisco.  I had never heard anything like it.  By this point, I had heard plenty of people say they didn’t think that gay relationships were wrong, but Romans 1 was never part of that conversation – it was avoided awkwardly or dismissed as irrelevant, or perhaps the whole idea of sin was said to be obsolete. But to pair a clear affirmation of sin’s relevance while approaching Romans 1 unflinchingly from the progressive side, well, that was a new approach.

Fred Harrell and Ken Korver are the lead pastors of the two largest churches (City Church San Francisco and Emmanuel Reformed, respectively) in our part of the denomination, and they differ on how they think the church should relate to LGBTQ persons.  Ken stood up the day following Fred’s comments and shared passionately about how he saw Fred’s perspective as flawed. In Ken’s words, “the perspective that Fred is taking is not a biblical perspective.”

I was familiar with Ken’s approach (I had worked for Ken for fifteen years, and we’d had some conversations about his perspective), but I’d never seen Ken in a dialogue like this.  For me, it was a gift to be able to listen to the two of them together – rarely have I seen civil conversation between people with such different perspectives. That was the first of three conversations I’ve been a part of with Ken and Fred.

The second conversation I witnessed was also in San Francisco, where, in October 2016, they were on a panel of denominational leaders addressing different ways of looking at LGBTQ issues.  Again, they were not in agreement.  But they were sitting about 10 inches from each other, and there was an obvious rapport and respect between the two.  After that conversation, I wasn’t sure if the two of them could stay in the same denomination (although I hope they can).  But I never doubted that they both loved Jesus and submitted to God’s word and that they both believed the other to be a true Christian.

The third conversation with Fred and Ken took place in Long Beach as part of our Study Team.  Because of the distance and schedules, we couldn’t get the two of them here on the same day, but we hosted each of them for an afternoon with the Study Team to hear their personal stories of connecting with LGBTQ people, their theological journeys, and what they perceive God saying about these issues.

There are certain assumptions that Christians often make about those who disagree with them on these matters, and having Ken and Fred here was so helpful to clear the air of those judgments.

Often, progressives dismiss traditionalists by saying, “Well, they don’t know anyone who is gay so of course they think that. They are just homophobes.”  Ken put that idea to rest.  He’s got tons of friends who are gay and has led groups with gay men for decades, caring for them, and journeying with them spiritually.  In fact, I just spent some time recently with a man who was in a group led by Ken way back in the 1990s, and although he sees the scriptures differently than Ken, he has nothing but positive things to say about how gracious, supportive and kind Ken was to him and the rest of the men in that group.

Often the traditionalists judge the progressives as not dealing with scripture honestly or deeply.  Fred couldn’t have been better at addressing that issue.  He easily can jump between the Greek construction of arsenokoitai to the New Testament context for eunuchs to the strengths of Webb’s ‘redemptive movement hermeneutic.’  Fred knows his stuff, and he’s clearly not avoiding the Bible.  In fact, he holds his progressive perspective on LGBTQ issues because of the Bible.

I’m grateful for Ken and Fred taking time out of their schedules to help our Study Team discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.  I’m grateful for those who have gone before me in thinking about these things and are willing to share their perspectives.

When My Son Came Out (Part 1)

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The father/son college trip

We were sitting at an outside table at Starbucks on Spring Street on the third Sunday of Lent. As a family we’d been fasting sweets, except for Sundays (the 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays), so Timothy was indulging in a double macchiato venti caramel tiramisu while I had my water and Katy drank coffee. We caught up on the day while the three of us were in line, and after we sat down Timothy looked right at us and said, “I bet you’re wondering why I brought you here today.”

In the pause that followed, it occurred to me that I did not in fact wonder why he had asked us out to Starbucks. I knew. And I’d let Katy know as well. We’d spent fifteen years pouring our lives into our son, helping him figure out who he was called to be, and we’d known for a while. And because I thought it might be helpful for him later in life to reflect on his coming out process, I had turned on the voice recorder on my phone (yes, I’m a bit ‘aggressive’ as my kids would say).

Timothy pressed on, “I’ve been thinking a lot lately and prayed about it, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m pretty solid on it and wanted to share with you guys first that I’ve decided that I’m gay. Feel free to ask all the questions you want.”

“Well, I think it’s more important to tell you that I love you,” was my response.  He followed with, “I know – I’m not worried about that.”

A simple prompt kicked off the next hour: “Tell us about your journey and what it’s been like for you.”

He talked about feeling ‘different’ growing up.  He talked about his discipleship group and the helpful conversations about the scriptures around homosexuality.  He talked about his failed attempts to be attracted to girls.  He talked about feeling angst over the past few months as he came face to face with his sexuality, even praying “Father, take this cup from me.”  And then he talked about how his identity in Christ was his primary identity and his sexual identity was secondary.  He talked about feeling called to connect the Christian community and the gay community because there was such a great need for bridge people. I found myself saying, “Just remember that bridges get walked on.”

Katy and I listened. What a precious hour. We closed our time letting him know how courageous he was to share so vulnerably with us and how proud of him we were. Then we prayed together and headed home.

I felt awesome after that conversation. Not because I wanted my son to be gay – on the contrary – but because I’ve always wanted and worked towards having an authentic, open relationship with him and his sister.

There’s a lot more to share about Timothy’s coming out process (yes, it includes tears and yelling). I’ll post more next week. But that initial conversation was huge. As I reflect on it now, so many pieces of it set the trajectory for what followed.

(Read Part 2 of the story)

 

Why Have an LGBTQ Study Team?

boekenWhen people find out City Church Long Beach has a Study Team dedicated to LGBTQ issues, and that the Study Team consists of people who do not agree with each other theologically, I get some interesting responses.

First off, a lot of people just think we’re crazy. I find that people who move towards either end of the theological spectrum sometimes struggle to accept that others hold informed perspectives different from their own. So the fact that we have a Study Team has upset some people because the studying, learning, and discussing imply that there might be multiple perspectives on these issues (contrary to their sentiment).

For example,

Recently, a City Church leader was asked with a sneer, “Why do you go to that gay church?” by someone who had heard of our Study Team.

Meanwhile, a neighbor from another church told me our church was oppressive to gays because we had no rainbows on our website and no links to organizations that fight for justice for the gay community.

Many people have told me that they think we are wrong to have a Study Team, that these are not issues that should be discussed.  The matter is closed so decisively for them that discussion would be destabilizing. I often wish I could understand more of these folks’ stories. What are their fears and where did they originate? What’s at stake for them in this conversation? What stirs in them the need to tell someone else what they can and cannot discuss?

With that being said, I have a number of friends for whom this is a settled matter because of a thoughtful conclusion they’ve reached; thus, this is not an arena in which they wish to spend more time and energy.  I totally get that.  I don’t feel the need to convince them they need to discuss it again, and I respect them for valuing both sides and for deciding on one of them.

Secondly, some people are fascinated.  Within the last few days I received an email from a professor, whom I’ve never met, at a midwestern university.  She’s a friend of a friend and through that connection got the syllabus and emailed me just ecstatic to have someone to talk to about these issues.  Time and time again I run into Christians who are dying to talk about these things but are scared to death that if they do they would be judged by their church or their friends or their family. So many people are looking for a safe space to have these conversations.

Third, I often get a thoughtful, “Hmm, that makes sense.”  Typically this comes from church leaders, both traditionalist and progressive, who recognize the value in conversation and who know that hearing from multiple voices helps us all discern God’s leading.  As the Second Council of Constantinople declared in 553AD:

The holy fathers… have followed the examples of antiquity. They dealt with heresies and current problems by debate in common, since it was established as certain that when the disputed question is set out by each side in communal discussions, the light of truth drives out the shadows of lying.  The truth cannot be made clear in any other way when there are debates about questions of faith, since everyone requires the assistance of his neighbor.

So why do does our church have a Study Team?

There are four reasons that have to do with our context and four reasons that have to do with our ethos.

Our Context

  1. The five past presidents of our denomination (the Reformed Church in America) sent a letter in early 2016 expressing their desire that churches have this conversation, particularly with people who see the issues differently. We have a Study Team because we’ve been invited to do so by the leadership of our denomination.
  2. Our denominational subgroup (the City Classis) entered into a 2 year intentional dialogue about LGBTQ issues in the Spring of 2015.  We have a Study Team because our group of churches is having this conversation.
  3. Our church (City Church of Long Beach) resides in Long Beach, which consistently ranks highly as one of the nation’s most gay-friendly cities (ranked #5 nationally in this study).  We have a Study Team because our missional context requires it.
  4. Our congregation is remarkably diverse, including a significant number of LGBTQ people (like my son, Timothy) – some who came to us as Christians, some who are investigating Christ, and some who have become Christians at City Church.  We have a Study Team because there are practical implications for the membership and leadership of people in our midst that depend on how the church views these issues.

Our Ethos

  1. We’ve always been a church that values authenticity and asking the real questions.  We have a Study Team because the people in our church really wonder about these issues and want to discuss them.
  2. God’s church has a long history of wrestling with difficult issues and not deciding them quickly.  We have a Study Team because it is the habit of the church through the ages to discuss difficult issues and, in community, to discern  the leading of the Spirit .
  3. We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church (per the Nicene Creed).  We have a Study Team to embody and promote Christian unity and to discern and encourage Christian holiness. 
  4. We’ve seen a lot of division and pain across the church in the U.S. over these issues, and we are just crazy enough to believe that by loving each other well in the midst of our disagreements we could bring a measure of healing to the greater church and some hope to the world.  We have a Study Team to model constructive dialogue across differences.  

It’s been an incredible honor to be on the Study Team. Each of us on the Study Team have our own unique journeys, and my purpose in this blog is not to speak for them, but rather, for myself. So next week I’ll share some of the story about when my son came out to me.

How My Journey Started

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Porter and me in Washington D.C., New Year’s Eve 2016

There were no gay people in Richmond, Virginia when I grew up.  That is, until my brother came out to me over Christmas break during his junior year at Georgetown.  That was December, 1990.

Apparently there was a whole world I didn’t know anything about, and my ignorance was about to be on display.

I had never met a gay person, had never heard of a gay person, and had never thought of a gay person.  We were raised in the South, lived on 11 acres of forested land, and went to an elite private school.  Sporadic church attendance didn’t mean we lacked good traditional Southern values, and everyone knew that men were supposed to be men and girls were meant to be asked on dates properly.  I was shocked by Porter’s revelation.  I couldn’t get my head around my brother liking guys.

From that conversation I mostly remember the two questions he asked me.  Shamefully, I don’t remember his determination or my insecurity.  Just the two questions.  And my poor replies.

First, he asked, “So what do you think?”

Since I’d gotten involved in Christian ministry a few years before, I immediately knew he was asking the moral question – what other question could there be after all?  I missed that opportunity to tell him how courageous he was to share that with me, how proud I was of him as his brother, and how much I loved him.  He laid his heart out on the line to me, and all I could think to do was pronounce a moral verdict on his confession.  Sigh. By God’s grace, my misdirected response wasn’t as bad as it could have been.  I said, “Well, I’ve always thought homosexuality was wrong, but I’ll need to go back and think about it and see what the bible says.”

Next he asked, “Do you think Mom and Dad know?”

Again, I missed hearing the real question.  I just thought he was dumb.  Are you kidding me?  They are going to be crushed!  I didn’t say that; I just said, “No, I don’t think so.”

What I didn’t say, because I didn’t hear the question, was this:  I hear you longing to be known and feeling a stranger in your own family.  That must be so hard.  What’s that like for you?  I’m sorry for not noticing that part of you, for not really seeing you all these years growing up together.  I grieve that, most likely, our parents missed that, too.  I think they missed some things about me, too, and I still don’t know how to process that very well but I know enough to say that it really hurts.  I’m here with you on your journey.  

Porter asked me to be a part of the conversation the next day with Mom and Dad.  It didn’t go well.  But I felt honored to be there, and his courage and resolve began to dawn on me. It also dawned on me that I didn’t know anything at all about these things.

The next day I left for the Urbana Missions Convention, where I proceeded to go to every seminar related to homosexuality and to buy every Christian book I could on the subject. What I didn’t do, however, was actually talk to any gay people.

So, that’s how my not-so glorious journey of connecting to LGBTQ persons and thinking about these issues began.