Getting Off the Island

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The past few days have been unreal. My folks felt so blessed when they read all of the encouraging comments on http://rachelheldevans.com/church-stories-forgive-them-father, and on my own blog. I love you guys.

As my story was being shared on the web, I was sharing a drink with the closest of friends… and I couldn’t tell them anything. The void that always existed between us felt bigger that night than ever before. With every weekly “high” and “low” that was uttered, I struggled to think of something significant besides the replies. I wanted to tell them about it. I wanted to say, “Here’s my story, it has a purpose! Check out what it meant to so and so!” But there I sat. As they chuckled about work stories, I stole glances at the screen of my phone, taking in every empathetic word with quiet gratitude.

Being locked up in the closet is nothing new for me. Prior to cracking open the door, my life was lived in isolation. I felt invisible. One friend of mine, the author of the previous post, described our predicament as being stranded on an island just off a coastal town.

You sit on the beach looking across the water, watching families and friends have picnics and build bon fires. You sit and watch, all alone, day in and day out. You call out to them, exchange shallow conversations over roaring waves, but that is it. They couldn’t possibly get a glimpse at your gashes, and even if they could, you know they would reject your repulsiveness and expose you as alien. So you stick to superficial bonds and embrace the safety of the island.

But, as I found out, the island can’t save you from yourself.

I tried compartmentalizing this part of me, considered it a thorn to be covered. I tried therapy, thinking confidential chats would stop the broken record. I tried crying out to Christ for a miracle, for my sexual orientation to be “healed”. I tried church then tried praying on my knees. Tried to seek out scripture. Tried to pretend everything was okay. Tried to help more people. Tried to drink away my demons. Tried to smile more. Tried to befriend myself.

And then I tried to suicide.

Obviously and thankfully, I wasn’t successful, even though I was walking within distance of death.

The following morning was a miserable one. The conversation that I knew had to happen was one that I had avoided for my whole life. It was the moment where I had to choose whether I would die on the island or swim towards the uncertain. With each baby step up to my parents’ bedroom, I felt waves beating me back. I anticipated anger. I expected disgust. I felt only fear.

But then, I washed ashore.

They asked why I waited so long.

“I thought you’d be grossed out by me,” weeping.

“Son, you have been lied to. We could never love you less.”

“So you’re not afraid of me?” sniffling.

“Of course not” they whispered, and they pulled me into a pile of hugs.

My fear of what was beyond the water’s edge kept me on a nightmarish island for over a decade. Where I only saw gashes in the flesh, they saw diamonds in the rough. I felt alien, they told me I was family.  I hated me, they loved me.

But the story isn’t over yet.

Unfortunately, I still take many trips back to the island. When I am with friends and many extended family members, I return to the old distant fellow they all know. I keep my temper in check with every fleeting political or religious slur. I keep my hopes at bay when I hear someone call them out.

What I have learned is,

in some settings, the island is safer

in others, it’s unnecessary.

So here I am, playing hop-scotch in-and-out of the closet. Riding in on the waves when I reach my front door and hitting the water again when I walk out. It’s a stressful place to stand, but it’s where I am right now.

Even though my fears have yet to be realized, I still worry about those on the other side of that conversation. I worry about love lost and friendships flushed. I worry about rejection and gossip. I worry about what they’ll do.

But I still have hope.

I have hope that when I bring forth those same fears of before.

When I tell them I am afraid they will hate me.

I’ll hear them whisper back.

“Lie.”

RR

*Photo Credit

Best Bible Story Ever

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It is one of the most compelling examples of Abba’s affection for the outcasts. It may not be what you think of first.

It is not the woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery.

It isn’t the story of the leper or the tax collector.

It isn’t about Samaritans.

It’s deeper in the dumpster.

It is the story of the Eunuch.

Act 8:26-39

Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.

 29-30The Spirit told Philip, “Climb into the chariot.” Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”

 31-33He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him. The passage he was reading was this: 

As a sheep led to slaughter, 
and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
 
He was silent, saying nothing.
 
He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
 
But who now can count his kin
 
since he’s been taken from the earth?

 

 34-35The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?” Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

 36-39As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, “Here’s water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be.” –Acts 8:26-39 (The Message)

 

This story is often retold as the birth of the Ethiopian Church and thus, breaking down the racial wall of Christianity. All of this is very true and very important. The Eunuch took hold of his new found life and allowed God to use him to transform a nation.

But are we missing something a bit deeper?

Should we not take a closer look at the first individual ever to be evangelized?

Is there more than one mountain moved here?

If you are unaware, to be a eunuch meant that you were castrated at a young age. The purpose of this heinous practice was to create little male body guards for women of importance, removing the risk of a possible sexual affair.

To be a eunuch was to be a non-heterosexual. To be a eunuch was to be a sexual minority. It was an immutable characteristic that they had no choice in.

Now, having an idea of what a eunuch is, think about what it would be like for him, passing by a temple, hearing the Rabbi recite this:

 

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1, ESV)

 

He was doomed from the start. It didn’t matter whether or not he had held the knife, he was uniquely disqualified from grace and salvation.

Yet he still searches.

Reading the passage of a sheep being lead to slaughter, a man with no descendants, one that was mocked for being different, was like reading his own biography.

Could this book be more than a guest list?

Could a eunuch really be beloved?

Once Phillip reaches the chariot, he asks the eunuch if he understands what he is reading. I imagine at this moment, the eunuch is experiencing an earth-shattering moment. It makes sense that he glances up, and utters, “help?”

After beginning a dialogue with Phillip, he gets to the heart of his question. One that, once answered, would define this man’s eternity.

Who is he talking about?

Why is his story so similar to mine?

Philip told him about Jesus of Nazareth.

Grace and love rained down on the eunuch as he began to grasp the reality of what Philip was saying. The King of Kings, Savior of sinners, Lover of the lost, was also rejected by the religious establishment. His father was not someone unfamiliar with pain.

During their trip, they passed a river, and the Eunuch, who I am sure was still struggling with what Deuteronomy said of him, asked Philip what was stopping him from being baptized. I can imagine him cringing, waiting to hear the haunting Old Testament words.

Brian McLaren gives a wonderful exegesis of this moment:

“Imagine what Philip might have said: “I need to contact the authorities in Jerusalem to get a policy statement on this issue. Maybe we should wait a few centuries until the church is more established. Baptizing you could cause real controversy in our fragile religious community. In the interests of not offending people back home, I’ll have to say no. Or at least not yet.”

But Philip doesn’t answer with words; he responds with immediate action. They stop the chariot, and Philip leads him into the water and baptizes him.

Neither race nor sexual identity was an obstacle for the apostles in welcoming a new brother into the community of faith. As early as Acts 8 in the story of Jesus and his apostles, the tough issues of race and sexual identity are being addressed head-on. But as we all know, as the years went on, both issues once again became obstacles. It’s only in my lifetime that we have truly begun to put racism behind us – although even there, we still have a long way to go. Now, it’s time for us to remove the second obstacle. Not in spite of the Bible, but because of it. We’ve lost a lot of ground since Acts 8. That’s why I am among those who dissent from the conventional approach and attitude, appealing back to Philip’s even more ancient church tradition.” (http://www.brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/synchroblogging-on-sexuality.html)

RR

Forgive them, Father

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I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up without a dad.

Not just the physical absence of a father, but with a workaholic, all-too-serious sort, that just so happens to have his name on your birth certificate. The jerk that chooses conference calls over chanting at a Twins game. The idol that forever promises a fishing trip that never happens. The drunk that just spent away your soccer money.

I have been so blessed.

See, my pops is the total package. If you think yours is better, you are so wrong.

The most magical memories of my childhood consist of him chasing me around the house, falling asleep while he yawned through Bernstein Bears, and sitting securely in his lap as sirens rang. Beyond being the playmate of my siblings and myself, he was always our biggest fan. Whether it be in sports, music, school plays, or video games, he covered us in his confidence.

But, being an unathletic son of a father who loves sports, my performance as a player was always a sensitive spot.

There was one time in particular.

I am a slow runner. Known this since I was little. Just an accepted fact of life. So, it makes perfect sense that in 5th grade I signed up for track. The consequences of this courage were not fully realized until I faced my first meet.

There I was, waiting for the shot of the gun in my hurdles heat, looking right and left at the boys and girls gritting their teeth as if they had waited their whole lives for this moment.

Then,

Shot.

Hesitation.

First hurdle knocked.

Last in the pack.

Second down.

Third down.

Everyone is watching.

Across the line, all alone.

I think, in those seconds of slow moving shame, an emotional instinct kicked in and I involuntarily looked up for my dad. Feeling like a failure, I imagined that maybe he would give me an “oh well” look or some sort of pity eyes. But the moment my eyes met his, I knew I had won something.

He was all smiles.

Thumbs up.

Laughing, not insultingly, but in a “way to finish!” way.

I smiled.

I laughed.

And forgot about failure.

He wears the cape better than most, and walks more humbly than I wish he would.

In the moments after I came out of the closet, that same dad swept me up in his arms. As I cried and cried, he whispered “I love you!” “I love YOU!”. He was more than just the dad I needed him to be in that moment. He was more. He is more.

As these things commonly go in the post-closet period, we sought out resources as to what we should next. After much searching, a good friend that was heavily involved in the ex-gay crowd recommended that my parents, especially my dad, watch a video entitled Homosexuality 101. It’s a short, 20 minute show that can be accessed online.

Sitting in the family room with my older brother, I heard sniffling and staggering steps approaching me. It was my dad. He was weeping. He started telling me how sorry he was that he failed me as a father. He spoke of how he pressured me too much to succeed and how that probably created a distance between us and how there were so many unmentionable mistakes he made. When asked, I couldn’t get an answer as to what they were. He was heart broken, and more miserable than I had ever seen him. I can’t even imagine what his thoughts were at that moment.

See, he had just watched a video that explains the reason why a young man develops same sex attractions is because his father never established a close relationship to his child at a young age. He did not express his love fully enough for the young boy in question to reciprocate, and in turn, trust him. The mystery of homosexuality could all be tied back to the dad that wasn’t there.

In layman’s terms: Dad, you fucked up. The pain your child feels is a direct result of your refusal to display a love that the child could believe in. You probably didn’t take him to enough hockey games, or ever confront a scraped knee with “rub some dirt in it.” You made yourself an enemy to your boy and now the consequences of your ineptitude have made him into a homo. Go sit in the corner and think about what you have done.

Really?

This guy?

The daddy who kissed me on the head every night before I fell asleep and, without fail, told me he loved me every chance he got? The man who ended any argument with another reminder that he loved me? The guy who was always there? At every sports event? Every play? Every recital? Every trip? The dad that abandoned his job whenever I took ill? The father that rocked me in his arms at my most vulnerable moment?

There was never a single second (unless I was behaving horribly) that I ever ever ever felt like a disappointment to him or wasn’t loved by him. There has never been a deficiency in our relationship at all.

Despite the evidence of this theory being fully debunked and labeled a made up myth, the church continues to call it Truth. And being a man of the church, my dad bought it.

The paralyzing guilt of imaginary memories of running away from his paternal role has landed him in church-inflicted purgatory.

Even as I fight with reason, faith, the American Psychiatric Association, my mom, his friends, therapists and every piece of rational data out there, I have yet to fully uproot his convinced culpability. He has started to parse out fact from fiction, but the trauma of that video still haunts him.

And I don’t know why.

I don’t know why the church pedals reparative therapy as an answer to their theological dilemma, despite it resulting in countless suicides.

I don’t know why they think its fit to equate gays to rapists and murders.

I don’t know why they say dads make kids gay.

I don’t know why they flog my father.

But I do know how I am to respond.

Even if its through clenched teeth.

 “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”

RR