For Parents: When Your Child Comes Out

Ben Moberg over at Registered Runaway recently wrote a really great post about how to respond when your child comes out. Ben’s writing is fabulous, as always, but it really got me thinking about what I would have appreciated from my parents when I came out. I thought I would offer a few thoughts here for conservative parents struggling to deal with their child’s disclosure. I’ve put it into a list of “do’s and don’ts” to make it easier (and less preachy).

I’d love to see thoughts on this from parents, as I’m still learning about how to deal with my own family situation and am not a parent myself.

 

Don’t make it about you.

You will probably have a lot of emotions when your child comes out. You may be angry or scared. You may feel hurt. You may worry that you were a bad parent or wonder what people will think. And in the heat of the moment, you may blame your child for all of these emotional conflicts. You may feel like his or her coming out is something that is being done to you.

  • Do think about what your child needs.

Coming out is hard and scary, even when you know that the people on the receiving end of your disclosure are allies. It is exponentially more difficult and terrifying when you know that your news won’t be received well.

It is easy to see your child’s coming out as him or her drawing a line on the sand, standing against you. It is easy to see it as an act of defiance or rebellion. However, consider it from your child’s perspective. He or she is confiding in you, sharing an important part of his or her life. For the person coming out, it is an invitation to deeper intimacy and more honest relationship.

Your child doesn’t need to hear that he or she is ruining your life, destroying your reputation, or behaving rebelliously. She probably does need to be reassured that she is still loved, still welcomed, and still supported. He needs to know that the risk he has taken by letting you in will be respected, not repudiated.

  • Do find someone to talk to about what you need.

The fact that your child doesn’t necessarily need to hear about all of your initial reactions doesn’t mean that they aren’t valid or that you don’t need to express them somewhere. Find a trusted friend, talk to your pastor, or see a counselor. Contact someone from the Marin Foundation’s list of parents or get in touch with your local PFLAG chapter. You aren’t alone in this, and it’s difficult for you, too. You deserve support and help.

Don’t preach.

If you have a conservative viewpoint on homosexuality, your kid probably already knows that. In fact, your child has probably been bracing herself for your impromptu sermon on Romans 1. But stop and think before you get out your Strong’s Concordance or your Giant Study Bible of Doom. Going immediately for the theological reasons that you cannot accept this news tells your child two things. First, it implies that your religious beliefs are more important than your relationship with your son or daughter. And maybe, in an abstract sense, that’s true, but it might be nice to give yourself some space to find a middle ground that both values your relationship with your child and remains faithful to your religious ideals. Maybe. I’m just saying that might be a thing you would be interested in.

Second, jumping straight into a sermon entrenches you in a particular position and shuts down the opportunity for dialogue. Your child likely did not come to this unprepared. Most people don’t come out on a whim. Most people don’t realize they’re gay and impulsively start telling people. This is likely something that your child has put a lot of thought into. He or she has probably considered the issue from all angles and has some well-researched, well thought-out ideas about what this means for his or her life and spirituality.

  • Do listen to what your child is saying.

Your child has put a lot of thought and effort into this. Give him a chance to tell his story, and respect him as an honest and reliable narrator. Understand that her experiences and emotions are valid, and try to understand her point of view. Receiving this kind of disclosure may not be comfortable. Be willing to sit in that discomfort rather than reacting to or running from it.

  • Do ask them for resources.

It’s likely that your child has at least done a Google search about being gay. It’s distinctly possible that she has joined discussion boards, read blogs and books, and generally done her homework about what it means to be gay and, if she is a person of faith, what it means to be gay and Christian. She may still be working through all of the information and deciding what she thinks, or she may have developed a firm, nuanced understanding of how her faith and sexuality interact. Regardless, asking what your child has been reading, listening to, and thinking about is another way of showing that you value his point of view and respect his ideas and opinions.

  • Do look for resources yourself.

Your child probably won’t have all the answers, especially to the questions that are particularly concerning to you. Fortunately, the internet is full of resources for those struggling to understand this issue. I’m sure that some of your favorite authors, pastors, and preachers have done some writing about the topic, and that’s a place to start. However, I would encourage you to move outside of your comfort zone and read other ideas, even ones you disagree with. You never know where you will find something interesting or helpful. The Marin Foundation and the Gay Christian Network are both great places to start. Also, Slacktivist has a whole list of LGBTQ+ Christian bloggers, which can give you some valuable insight into how your child may be feeling. If you’re looking for blogs by parents, check out Linda Robertson or Susan Cottrell.

Don’t despair.

This is not the end of the world. This is not even the end of your relationship with your son or daughter. Coming out is difficult for everyone involved, but it can also be an opportunity for growth, both in your relationship with your child and in your walk with God.

  • Do take hope in the diverse ways that Christians are finding to reconcile faith and sexuality.

There has never been a better time to be queer and Christian. The internet is humming with dialogue about this issue, and people from all sorts of faith traditions are talking about ways to live more genuinely into their sexual orientation or gender identity without compromising their relationship with God.

  • Do realize you’re not alone.

You are not the first parent to hear their child say those words, and you won’t be the last. It can be tempting to hide from what is happening, but if you are willing to reach out, you will find yourself in the midst of a beautifully supportive community.

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On Cakes and Inclusion

Alternatively, The Easter Post I’ve Been Trying To Write for Two Months.

On the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake.

Lent was a hard season this year. I set myself impossible tasks (as I always do), and I failed miserably at them (as I always have). I finally started dating the woman I’d been falling in love with for months, only to have a friend I thought was supportive tell me I’d “lost [my] moral compass.” World Vision set a queer-friendly HR policy, resulting in the loss of several thousand child sponsorships over two days. My friends threw me a fabulous birthday party, and my parents sent me the most perfunctory birthday card ever.

I felt over and over again through those 40 days as though lines were constantly being drawn, placing me outside of groups that once welcomed me with open arms.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake.

On Easter morning, I got up at 5am. I put the casserole I had assembled the night before in the oven and dressed in layers. The girlfriend and I headed out into the unseasonable pre-dawn chill to my church’s sunrise service. We met in a park and watched the sun rise over the trees. We sang hymns and baptized a baby and listened to the story of the women at the empty tomb. Afterwards, we walked to the pastor’s house for a potluck drunk brunch.

My church’s motto is “Everyone, everyone, everyone.” They mean it. We’re smack dab in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood in the queerest city in the South. We’ve got a little bit of everything: academics, queers, feminists, homeless folks, and homeschoolers. I’m always astounded by how openly we’re all made welcome. It’s an extravagant sort of love, a transgressive kind of grace.

All through Lent, I struggled to make peace with what’s going on between me and my parents. I keep worrying that this is something I’m doing to myself. I don’t have to be alone like this. They would pick up the phone if I called. They even reached out a couple of times at the beginning of the semester, asking for updates or expecting me to get over my snit and start speaking to them again. But at the same time, they are the ones drawing the lines that leave me out. In coming out, I attempted to include them. In telling me I was going to hell, being influenced by demons, defying God and them, they are drawing a line between us and then asking why I’m on the other side. Every time they made loud commentary in my direction about LGBTQ news stories, excluded me from a meal or conversation, or refused to acknowledge my identity, they were reaffirming that division.

On my parents’ 25th anniversary, my mother did the math and announced that she and my father had moved 12 times during their marriage. That averages to around every other year. Needless to say, we rarely lived around extended family, so we almost always travelled for holidays. Easter was the only exception, since it always falls on Sunday, so Easter became our holiday. My mother has made the same meal every year since I can remember: roast pork loin, hashbrown casserole, asparagus, spinach salad, deviled eggs, yeast rolls, and . . . The Easter Cake.

The Easter Cake was the centerpiece of the meal. It’s a two-layer dark chocolate cake, ridiculously moist, with a creamy, whipped frosting. Mom always made it the night before so it could sit in the fridge and soak up part of the frosting over night. She served it cold with pastel sprinkles in the shape of rabbits and ducks.

I have never been homesick in my life, but last year I almost got in my car and drove home during Holy Week. Since that wasn’t really practical, I asked my mother to email me her recipes and cooked the traditional Easter dinner for my friends, complete with The Easter Cake. Mom was ecstatic. Apparently your daughter’s first holiday meal is a big deal because she made me take pictures of everything so she could show her friends at work. Even thousands of miles away, I knew I was part of something special. I was making the same recipes that my mother and grandmother had made. I was carrying on a tradition of friendship and hospitality that I learned at my mother’s knee.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake. The Easter Cake. And on Sunday afternoon, I welcomed my friends into my apartment where they demolished most of a 9 pound ham, a double recipe of hashbrown casserole, two pounds of asparagus, a giant spinach salad, 36 deviled eggs, two dozen yeast rolls, and about two-thirds of The Easter Cake. (My friends are grad students. HUNGRY grad students who were all writing their theses and had not a home-cooked meal in weeks.)

There were no pictures this year, and I’m fairly certain my mother did no bragging the next day at work. But on some level, I am keeping the faith that I am still a part of that family, still a part of the family of faith, still a PART, because the blood of Christ, the love of Christ, the death-conquering power of Christ washes away all the lines. After all, they’re only drawn in sand.

So on the Saturday before Easter, I baked a cake, knowing that many miles away, my mother was doing the same thing. It tasted like hope.

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Whose Vision? (An Open Letter To Evangelicals)

Dear Evangelicals,

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times.

Homosexuality is just like any other sin. It’s no different from lying or gossiping or gluttony.

Except it’s not. You don’t believe it, and I don’t believe it, and I honestly don’t understand why we’re still saying it.

It’s different because we disagree about whether it’s a sin at all. No one tries to excuse lying or gossip or gluttony. Except, that’s not true, is it? Because we excuse those things all the time. We lie to save our skins or our reputations. We gossip and call it a prayer request or “venting.” We eat too much, drink too much, buy too much, and excuse it because it’s a special occasion. Those are just little sins, after all. They’re easy to excuse.

Obviously, homosexuality gets classed in with the big sins. It’s up there with murder and adultery. It’s the kind of sin that marks you as a morally bankrupt person, because no one jumps strait to the big sins. You start with the little ones and work your way up. So, obviously by the time you get to homosexuality you’re kind of the worst person ever. You’re probably a habitual liar and a bitter gossip and an all around general reprobate, and then you start sleeping with people of the same gender. Because if you’ve already completely abandoned your morals, why not?

So you think homosexuality is a sign of moral bankruptcy while I think it’s just a thing that happens. Some girls like other girls. Some dudes like other dudes. NO BIG DEAL. That’s a pretty intensely different way of thinking about something.

That’s not the only difference, either.  While most sins do come with their own label, no one uses “liar” or “murderer” to describe themselves. No one considers “adulterer” a vital part of their identity. No one uses “gossip” to explain how they see the world and are seen by it in return. (I mean, maybe they do, but that’s kind of unhealthy, and those people should probably seek counseling.) Certainly, no one is proud of those labels. (Again, if you do, please find someone to talk to.) But for us gay people . . . well, it’s right there in the name. Every other sin is something you do, but homosexuality is something you are.

I’m sure that you’re already gearing up some sort of argument about why I’m wrong. I’m sure that you’ve got your Bible open to Romans or I Timothy, and you’re ready to explain to me in painstaking detail how incredibly deceived I am. But you know that saying, “Actions speak louder than words?” Your actions have already told me that I’m right.

There are a lot of different ways to be a Christian. People from churches that sit across the road from each other may disagree about the role of women in ministry, the appropriate clothing to wear to the pool, or the type of music that should get sung on Sunday mornings. We argue about who is saved and how they get that way. We disagree about what the end times will look like and whether or not it’s okay to drink alcohol. But at some basic level, we all recognize each other as part of the same body. When you get down to the brass tacks, we recognize that we are called by Christ to love and to serve, and we are usually happy to do that side by side.

Except for the gays.

When I heard earlier this week that World Vision had decided to amend their hiring policy regarding queer people, the first thing I did was go look at their list of open positions. I’m six weeks away from finishing a degree in public health, and I want to work in international development. I’d pretty much given up on the idea that I would find a Christian organization to serve with. I’m a queer woman. I know where I’m not wanted. But suddenly, this week, I was a part of the body of Christ again. I was welcome as a sister, called by Christ to love and to serve alongside my fellow believers. It was a beautiful thing.

Of course it was short-lived. Less than 24 hours later, I was reading World Vision’s reversal of the decision, complete with an apology to their conservative supporters who were apparently “hurt and confused” by the idea of radical inclusiveness. I felt like I’d been offered a seat at the table, only to have it jerked out from under me while the rest of the group pointed and laughed. Because of course I don’t belong here. Of course, I’m not called to love and to serve. Of course I’m not a part of the body. Not really. I’m just a sinner.

Well I’ve got some news for you. The body is made up of sinners. We’re all saved “by grace, through faith, and this not of ourselves. It is the gift of God.” And without the blood of Christ, your name would be Liar and Thief and Glutton and Murderer. Just like you keep calling me Homosexual.

Sin is sin, and only God gets to decide what that is. Only God gets to decide if I’m forgiven. Only God gets to invite me in or shut me out. And on this side of heaven, we’ll never know who’s right and who’s wrong. You are not the gatekeeper to the kingdom. You are not the arbiter of righteousness. You are not my judge.

We are all sinners, and as long as the Church insists on excluding those they deem unworthy of the name of Christ, they are cutting off their nose to spite their face, because the only thing you do by pulling that chair out from under me is make me wonder if it’s worth it to try. I have gifts to share just like anyone else, and I want to share them for God’s glory. I want to live out the call to love and to serve in a way that honors him. You need my gifts. The body doesn’t work without all the bits and pieces.

So how long will you keep this up? How long will you keep cutting out healthy tissue and calling it cancer? There’s only so much slicing and dicing a body can handle. Excluding us doesn’t help anyone. It hurts us. It hurts you. And it hurts those we should be loving and serving.

So stop lying to me, and stop lying to yourselves. Stop making the excuse that you treat homosexuality “just like any other sin” and think about the truth of your words and actions. Be honest about what you’re doing to the body of Christ, to your brothers and sisters, and to the work God called us to.

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Love Is (A Lot of Things)

A youth pastor I’m Facebook friends with due to connections forged in a former life* recently shared a blog post about a sermon he preached to his youth group on love.  He titled it “The Love Song that’s the Biggest Boatload of Crap” and posted a link to John Mayer’s “Who You Love.”  The song, which I’d never heard of before, talks about how the object of our love sometimes surprises us.  The chorus says, “I’ve fought against it hard enough to know that you love who you love.”

The graphic he used with the post seemed to reference the hook from Mackelmore’s “Same Love,” which was written by Mary Lambert and later expanded into a complete song, “She Keeps Me Warm.”  To be fair, that’s the closest he came to actually referencing homosexuality.  It’s also the main reason I clicked the post and probably should have been a sign to stay away.

The sermon had three points:  “Love is a choice.  Love is not an emotion.  Love is a commitment.”

It’s something I’ve heard before.  The arguments aren’t new.  I sat on my parent’s couch six weeks ago and listened to them.  But they make my blood boil every time.

I’m not a Greek scholar, but I’ve hung around churches long enough to know that there are different kinds of love.  C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book called The Four Loves, which discusses the four ancient Greek words that get translated as “love” in modern English.**  Eros is romantic love.  Philia is the love between friends.  Storge is familial affection.  Agape is unconditional love or “charity.”

Saying “Love is a choice,” is manipulative.  Some types of love are a choice.  Maybe even all types of love are a choice sometimes.  But when we say, “Love is a choice,” we usually mean “Eros is a choice,” and then back up the statement with examples of agape.  We set people up for failure when we do this, implying that if they are attracted to or fall in love with the “wrong” person (whether that means a person of the wrong gender, race, religion, or moral fortitude) they have somehow sinned.  They have failed to be self-controlled.  They have neither the mind nor the heart of Christ.

Frankly, that is the biggest boatload of crap.

There are lots of choices to be made in the romantic sphere of life.  Acting on attraction is a choice.  Entering into a relationship is a choice.  Becoming physically or emotionally intimate is a choice.  Marriage is a choice.

Commitment is an important part of a romantic relationship.  We commit ourselves to a single partner.  We commit ourselves to planning for marriage.  We commit ourselves to marriage, itself.  And each of these commitments deserves due consideration.

Love is a choice, sometimes.  Love is a commitment, sometimes.  Certainly any long-term relationship will require love to be a choice and a commitment at various points.  But love isn’t only those things.

In today’s Western culture, most marriages begin with a combination of eros and philia.  Two people find each other attractive.  They get along well.  They decide to date.  This first, heady rush is why we have idioms like “falling in love” and “love struck” and even “lovesick.”  It’s incredibly emotional.  It’s not something that’s carefully reasoned and well thought-out.  It just . . . happens.  This is the narrative we grow up with.  This is the narrative we hear from movies and television, but also from our parents and pastors and Sunday School teachers.  This is how we learn that love works.  So to stand in front of a group of teens and say, “Love is a choice,” is to twist that narrative in a way that is viciously cruel.

I know what it’s like to love as a choice.  For years, I have silently quoted I Corinthians 13:4-6 to myself during difficult moments with my parents.  I have chosen to be patient and kind and unselfish as I loved friends and co-workers.  I have wrestled with what it means to “keep no record of wrongs.”  I have been challenged by the idea that “[l]ove does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.”  I have thanked God for a love that perseveres and never fails.

I have also found myself completely and unexpectedly in a different kind of love.  I looked up one day and realized that what started as friendship with an edge of attraction had turned into something entirely different without me noticing or intending it to.  And when I realized that the object of that affection was not an appropriate partner, I made the choice to ignore those feelings and continue to nurture the other types of love in our relationship.

“Love is a choice” is a pithy tagline for a sermon, and sometimes it’s true.  But let’s be honest about what we really mean when we say that, and let’s be consistent about the story we tell when we talk about how love happens.  To do anything else is manipulative and hurtful.

*I actually unfriended this person immediately after reading the blog post.

** I apologize to any actual Greek scholars who read this for any mistakes I made in discussing these words and their meanings.  I hope my overall point is still adequately clear.

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We’re All A Little Fucked Up (But It Gets Better)

I haven’t spoken to my parents in two weeks.  My mother called twice and left one message.  She sounded off.  Not quite angry, but definitely a little curt.  Maybe uncertain?  I can’t imagine she knows what to do now anymore than I do.

Part of me wants to end the stalemate.  I could call and pretend like everything is alright, but everything isn’t alright and bullshitting my way through a conversation won’t actually help.  Things were said that can’t be unsaid, and behind every bit of pleasant small-talk, I’m going to hear “abandoning your soul to eternal damnation” and “that church is a cult” and “this is rebellion.”  It makes me wonder whether they’re constantly hearing “I’m gay.”

Part of me wishes she would keep calling.  For years, I’ve been the “black sheep” of the family, the one who didn’t quite fit.  I’ve always been half-afraid that my parents wouldn’t miss their squeaky wheel all that much.  Seeing her number show up makes me feel sad and uncomfortable, but also a little more loved.

Being part of a family is complicated.  It comes with so many rules and expectations, so much baggage, that it’s a wonder any of us become sane adults.  And everyone’s family is a little fucked up.  It’s just how the world is.  No one survives the passing on of however many thousands of years of accumulated history and war and politics and life and evolution without a few dents and dings.  Nobody comes out of a family without a few quirks.  No one’s childhood was actually like Leave it to Beaver.

But there’s “everyone’s family is a little fucked up” and then there’s “my parents might be living in an alternate reality that only exists inside their heads.”  There’s quirky and then there’s I-can’t-talk-to-you-regularly-and-also-function-like-a-real-human-being.  We’re officially on the bad end of that spectrum in a lot of ways.

Baggage isn’t the only thing I left home with, though.  In many ways, I’m quite proud of my family.  I come from a long line of amazing women, strong individuals who made it work for their families despite difficult circumstances.  I come from people of incredible faith, and the fruits of that faith can be seen in churches planted, lives changed, and ministries grown.  Both of my parents were raised by blue collar workers but went on to finish college.  My father even has a master’s degree, and my mother is considering going back to school to get an MBA.  These are the stories I grew up on and the shoulders I stand on to accomplish anything in my life.

Sometimes when I’m cooking dinner or driving home, I really want to call my mom, but it’s not actually MY MOM that I want to talk to.  It’s this hypothetical version of my mom who divorced my dad sometime during my college years and stuck up for me when I was depressed and supported me when I decided to get an MPH instead of an MD and is always willing to listen and talk through things, even if she’s uncomfortable with them.  I think that the woman who is actually my mother would be capable of at least some of that if she weren’t also married to/enmeshed with my father.  It makes me sad.  I’d really like to meet that person, but I’m not sure she’ll ever actually exist.  Instead, I hope that I can become that person.  I hope that I can overcome some of the baggage my mom never got past and become the person that she couldn’t be.  And I hope that the next generation of our family will benefit from that.

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A Year in Review and One Word for 2014

I started this blog because I realized I was gay, and I felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

(Saying that I realized I was gay is probably putting it too strongly.  It was more like I finally admitted to myself that I had been attracted to women for a long time and that might possibly mean something.  My first attempt at coming out was telling my best friend, “I think I might be not-exactly straight.”)

I made a lot of noise about New Year’s resolutions and discipline and sorting out my head and speaking my mind, but really . . . it was the gay thing.  I didn’t actually start writing about my sexuality until I was well into the process of coming out in real life, but in a way, this blog was a promise.  It was a promise to myself that someday I would be able to tell people.  Someday I would be able to admit to who I am.  Someday I wouldn’t be ashamed of myself.

I didn’t really expect that day to come so soon.

The past year (and a few days – this is a bit late) has been a big one for me.  I’ve discovered a whole queer Christian community where people like me are exploring what it means to live out faith in Christ as a sexual minority.  I’ve finally, really committed to being in therapy and sticking with it.  I’ve become part of a church where I really feel connected and at home for the first time in years.   I’ve found so many people (both old friends and new) that love and support me no matter what.  I’ve survived the first three semesters of my graduate degree program, built a great resume, and started applying for post-graduation opportunities.

I’ve also stopped talking to my parents.

Unfortunately, my Christmas break was a little more dramatic than I expected it to be.  After a long talk about my sexuality and several days of pointed commentary, I decided that while my parents are entitled to their opinions, it was neither necessary nor healthy for me to continue subject myself to their expressions of those opinions.  So I called my best friend and asked her to drive out and pick me up.  When I announced my intention to leave, my parents insisted that they had not created a hostile environment.  Instead, they maintained that I was experiencing the conviction of the Holy Spirit, and that by leaving instead of submitting to that conviction (and their spiritual authority) I was “abandoning [my] soul to eternal damnation.”

We haven’t spoken since, and I’m not sure when we’ll speak again.

For years now, my relationship with my parents has been a stitched-together monster made of half-kept secrets and grudging compromises.  I’ve wondered for a long time if the only way to heal it would be to burn it to the ground and start over.  I’ve also wondered more recently if anything will grow in the ashes of all this string and madness.  There’s a lot of dysfunction there, and a part of me thinks it might be wiser to salt the earth and move on.  My parents cling to their right-ness with the terrified fervor of martyrs, and I don’t know if our relationship will prove worth the courage necessary for them to step away from that security and venture into the unknown.  I don’t know if they will ever accept my queerness.  I don’t know if I will ever be truly welcomed there.

Ironically, on the way to the airport to fly back to my home state I decided that my word for 2014 would be Belonging.  This year I hope to live in three different cities on two continents.  That’s a lot of leaving.  But in all of that hoped-for wandering, I also want to explore what it means to belong.  Last year a lot of my learning and growing was about who I am.  This year, I want to spend more time thinking about who we are.  What does it mean to be part of a church?  A family (chosen or blood)?  A group of friends?  A community of similarly identifying folks?  What is it like to belong as a student?  An intern?  An expat?

I have never been good at belonging.  As a fiercely independent introvert, I tend to be a bit of a Lone Ranger.  As a child from a dysfunctional family, I tend to have trust issues.  But I want to get better at it.  I want to be able to welcome people into my life and to be welcomed fully into theirs.  I want to get better at the give and take of relationships.  I want to be able to play well with others.

Twenty-thirteen was a year of growth and change.  It was painful, but it was worth it.  I believe that 2014 can be similarly fruitful.

What are you hoping for this year?

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On Kissing Girls and Speaking in Tongues

I was eight years-old the first time I spoke in tongues.  It was a Sunday night, sometime between Easter and the Day of Pentecost.  I remember the chaos of the early part of the prayer time, the altars packed with people shouting and crying.  I remember my Sunday School teacher shouting in my left ear “Just hold on!” and a deacon’s wife shouting in my right ear “Just let go!”  I remember my mother standing behind me encouraging me to just tell God how much I loved him.  I remember getting lost in an incredible sense of God’s presence, a bone deep knowledge of how much he loved me in return that caused me to weep and eventually collapse.  The next thing I remember is my mother holding me up as I open my eyes and start speaking the nonsense syllables I’d been hearing in my head.  I think my Sunday School teacher was still there, but fortunately she was the only one left, as I started to jump and dance, alternately laughing and exclaiming in my new prayer language.  My mother has always insisted I was dancing with an angel.

I still speak in tongues, but not often in church.  These days I use my prayer language while I am sitting on my couch having quiet time or driving in bad traffic or washing dishes at the church’s soup kitchen.  It is a comforting reminder that God is present and active in each moment, working in and through me.  It is a reminder that I am not alone in my joys and sorrows or in the actions that precipitate them.

And on Sundays, I go to a church where there are no mourner’s benches at the front, no altars at which to kneel and pray.  Instead, my pastor wears a stole decorated with rainbow-colored commas, symbolizing our denomination’s commitment to the idea that “God is still speaking.”  When I first visited here and began researching the UCC, this idea seemed comfortingly familiar.  Of course God is still speaking.  We Pentecostals believe he never stopped.

I grew up with the unspoken sense that our church had figured out something about God that no one else knew:  That God could and did speak to us, directly and indirectly and in many ways that fall somewhere in between.  I grew up in a church where it was not uncommon to be approached by someone who felt God had given them “a word” for you and where it was not inappropriate to suggest based on your own understanding of God and of your situation that the person had either misheard or misinterpreted something.  In short, I grew up with the idea that I could trust myself to know God’s truth from Satan’s lies (or even just the sinful desires of my own human nature) based on my reading of the Bible and the move of the Holy Spirit in my own life.  Because God is always speaking to us.

It was this understanding of my own spiritual discernment that allowed me to accept my sexuality despite the teachings of the church I grew up in.  It allowed me to visit the church I now call home for the first time with an open mind and heart.  It allowed me to acknowledge that my pastor is a person of genuine, active, abundant faith, even though it significantly complicated my understand of God’s will for my sexuality, because that woman’s love for Jesus and her desire to share that love with others would fit in beautifully in any of the congregations I grew up in, even if her female partner wouldn’t.

I grew up understanding the Pentecostal movement as a place of rebels and dreamers, of misfits and outliers.  But finding myself, now, on a different kind of border, I find that there is no longer a place for me at that table, and I wonder why.  Why is a fellowship founded on the idea that everyone else had been getting it wrong for so many years so resistant to the idea that there’s something else we’ve been getting wrong?

When I was in high school, my father and I had a talk about the gift of prophecy in which he told me, “The word of the prophet is subject to the prophet.”  He explained that this meant that a prophecy is a word from God, but it comes through a human filter.  The person God uses perceives the message in a way that is unique to his or her context and makes a choice about what to share and how to share it.  I’ve since come to understand that this also means that we only hear from God what we are willing to hear.  God is always speaking, but we don’t always hear or hear clearly.

I am the first to admit that I have no formal training in church history or theology, but I know enough about my church to be aware that the Pentecostal movement and the holiness movement went hand in hand.  My parents have joked that their youth group motto was “We don’t smoke and we don’t chew, and we don’t go with girls that do!”  (Or boys, depending on which parent is telling the story.)  My grandmother was regularly chastised by their pastor for daring to work in her front garden in pants.  My father didn’t allow me to pierce my ears until I was 16, at which point one of his minister friends finally convinced him that he was being ridiculous and old fashioned.

In my childhood and teen years, I could see that my church was in transition, trying to find a way to keep its sense of holiness in a culture that no longer recognized beehive hairdos and long skirts as anything other than weird.  I knew families who required their daughters to keep their hair long and didn’t allow their children to go to movie theaters.  I also had friends who wore knee high boots and denim mini-skirts to church on Sunday mornings.  There was a constant debate about appropriate attire for services at youth camp, and the rules shifted a little year by year.  Sometimes we were encouraged to eschew all such forms of ungodliness as books and music that weren’t explicitly about Jesus, but sometimes we were just encouraged to prayerfully consider our entertainment options.  My (admittedly moderate) youth pastor would read to us from 1 Corinthians 8 and encourage us to make choices about media based on how they affected our personal walk with Christ and our witness to others rather than any list of specific rules.

My mother recently treated me to a long, rambling lecture on how holiness is a matter of the heart, not a matter of rules.  I’m honestly not sure if she was implying that my attraction to women is evidence that my heart is not truly holy or if she is beginning to accept that my sexuality may not be an indicator of moral and spiritual decay, but I can’t help but think that there’s a way forward here.  There’s a place for wild-eyed prophets, overflowing with God’s and manifesting his gifts who are also queers or allies.  There’s still a place for holiness and fire and God’s ever-active presence in my life.  There’s a chance that God is still speaking, and we might just be ready to hear him.

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