Tuesday, June 08, 2010

On Gays, Ex-Gays, Unsure Gays, and the Kingdom

A few months ago, J and I announced to one of our pastors (Patsy) that we wanted her to be a part of our wedding ceremony.  She seemed uncomfortable with it.  I know what you're thinking: "Well of COURSE!  What pastor wouldn't be nervous about a gay wedding!  Her conscious was probably getting to her!"  But that wasn't it at all.  In fact, she has always been one of our biggest fans and greatest supporters.  Patsy explained to us that she felt like it was well beyond time for Cedar Ridge to address issues of sexuality.  She wanted to attend our wedding with a clear conscience, knowing that she was celebrating outloud, rather than in hiding - for fear that some unapproving member of the church would find out.  She was adamant that if the pastors of the church were going to be performing a gay union, then the church needed to know how its leaders approached sexuality.

I was mortified!  Utterly mortified!!  For the past 5 years (since I've been a member of CR), my greatest fear is that *I* would be the cause of a major doctrinal and physical split in the church.  I've blogged about this before here (also see Andy Marin's blog here and here).  In defiance, I retorted "well fine, we'll just get Brian (McLaren) to officiate the wedding!" (the idea being that since Brian isn't officially a pastor of the church anymore, there would be no need for us to push the homo issue).  That pretty much didn't fly with Patsy :-/

Thus began months of planning this new direction for our church.  I don't want to in any way imply that this whole year of the church's teaching has been for the purpose of helping everyone to realize that at CR, we love gays.  Not in the slightest.  Our leaders have long had a passion to express the unfathomable, irrational, extravagant love of Jesus to the world.  So our teachings and discipleship group meetings have all centered around learning how to love "the other", learning how to love in the midst of disagreement, learning how to truly listen to others.  And after months of such teaching, our leaders felt that it was indeed time to look at sexuality.  And not homosexuality as "an issue", but rather how we should approach sexuality being sexual creatures who are sexually imperfect, but who seek to be sexually whole and healthy in the presence of God the Creator.  No one, however, pretended to be ignorant of the fact that if you start talking sexuality in church, you're going to have to talk about gay people, gay love, and gay marriage. . .

We kicked off our sexuality series a few weeks ago (In Pursuit of Sexual Wholeness).  The first week, Matthew talked about "Sex is Great!"  And it was a wonderful sermon about the ways in which Christians have stigmatized sex so much, as to make God's most beautiful human act seem shameful and dirty.  The next few weeks, Patsy and Matthew taught about the various ways in which we as humans can be sexually broken, and gave us hope for healing in the example of Jesus.  Then Matthew finished up with probably THE most moving sermon ("Love is the Greatest") I've heard him - or anyone, for that matter - share to date.  He challenged us all to think about sex from the lens of it being a supremely loving act.  It was profound, thought-provoking, and convicting.

Through all of the planning for this series, the biggest question looming in the back of everyone's minds was how we were going to address the orientation question.  J and I were enthralled by the New Direction Ministries' video "Bridging the Gap: Conversations on Befriending Our Gay Neighbors", and suggested that maybe we could set up a few nights throughout the sexuality series where we watch sections of the DVD as a community, and then have a question and answer period afterward.

Matthew had a concern about the video being an ex-gay production, and in a magnanimous act of empathy towards gay visitors to CR, he didn't want to do anything that might alienate them or make them feel as though we were promulgating an ex-gay approach for all gay people (though, admittedly, New Direction is hardly a "typical" ex-gay ministry with an ex-gay approach!)  The mere hint of association was enough for Matthew and Patsy to consider other ways of discussing homosexuality.  The idea about a panel discussion finally emerged.  There was extreme concern among members of the leadership team that something of this nature could easily devolve into a meaningless debate, and would jump-start a church split if we were not careful.

But I wasn't so sure it had to be that way.  Several of us put our heads together to brainstorm ways to make this happen.  I recounted to Matthew the experience I had at one of Brian McLaren's conferences after writing his book "Generous Orthodoxy", where he gathered a few people who dealt with same sex attractions, and told the entire audience that we were there to listen, and listen only.  No questions, no statements, no debates.  Only listen.  It was an amazing experience!  I was sure that we could replicate the same atmosphere of humility and understanding at CRCC.

In the midst of the sexuality series, Matthew began to talk about the special event that we were going to have at CR: an evening of listening to a panel of people talk about their struggles with their sexual orientation.  Yours truly suggested we call it "Perspectives on Sexual Orientation".

Last night was that special event.  "Nervous" does not even begin to describe my emotions leading up to this panel discussion!  My stomach was churning all day.  When I returned home from work yesterday, I was so anxious that I could hardly think!  I downed 2 shots of vodka in a mixed drink I concocted on the fly, and then J and I set off for CR.  (This turned out to be a bit of a mistake, for though it did temper my nerves significantly, it also - along with the 2 glasses of water I downed previously - made it feel like my bladder was going to explode by the time I reached church!  I peed 4 times within the next half hour while we were all getting mic'd up!)

The panel consisted of J and I, along with another gay couple (K and JP).  K and JP have been together for 11 years, and they were one of the fortunate 18,000 couples that got married in California before the residents of that "great" state decided to rescind marriage rights for gays.  From the very beginning, I felt as if something big was going to happen.  Matthew introduced us as committed couples who were married (or "about to get married" in the case of J & I).  This simple introduction was a supreme act of kindness.  Here was our pastor and friend, affirming our love before the entire church.  Somehow, in that moment, my relationship to J felt substantial in that way that commitments do when an entire community is brought in on it.  It was kind of a like a preview of what our ceremony will be like in just a few short weeks! :)

The 5th person on the panel (S) was probably the bravest among us.  Not only was she the only woman on the panel, but she was also the only one whose tale was more or less "ex-gay" in nature. (It's actually unclear, based upon S's story, whether or not she is bisexual, or more lesbian, but she had significant attraction to women, which has considerably affected her marriage to her hubby R.)

Think about that.  You really did hear me correctly.  My church had committed gay partners on stage.  Before everyone!  And the leaders asked them to be there - out of love, not out of condemnation so as to make an "example of sin" out of them!  The leaders wanted the entire church to know how much they were a part of the community.  AND . . . and there was a same-sex attracted woman - married to a man, and convinced that this was God's calling for her - on that same stage!  Gays and Ex-gays, side-by-side.  Like lions laying down beside lambs.

But what happened next was truly astonishing.  As we began to tell our stories - one by one - the love, grace, and understanding was literally palpable.  As K began to share his story, I looked across the room and saw the faces of friends and loved ones, strangers, agreers and disagreers - but all were faces of love and respect.  My nervousness melted away like wicker in wax, burning. We were not there to compete - or to take sides.  No one was better than anyone else.  No one felt the need to suggest that my love for J was inferior.  No one felt the need to suggest that S's love for R was suspect, or some sort of fabrication.  They just listened - with utmost respect, and supreme humility.  And then, they asked questions.  And the questions were poignant. 

The entire evening, I was fighting to hold back tears.  I was overwhelmed by emotion as I heard the pain from my fellow panel members, as I retold my own sorrowful tale, as I saw tears streaming down countless faces in the audience, as I looked into the eyes of friends who sent beaming smiles my way, as my friend and brother stood and announced his love and support.  By the time it was over, we (the panel) had received standing ovations. 

Even now as I type this, I'm overrun by emotion.  It was truly a divine evening.  Utterly surreal.  I cannot even describe it with words.  Stupendous, amazing, jaw-dropping; these are all imprecise, clumsy words which I would not deign use to describe what it was like to be on such holy ground.

It was, indubitably, the Kingdom at work on earth.  As Patsy shared with me afterward, this was a pivotal event in the history of our church.  It is a momentous sign of our vision come to fruition.  This vision that seems so utterly ridiculous on the surface:

"Imagine a community that dares to dream of heaven on earth; a community where everyone is accepted and respected and their journey cherished, regardless of their background, beliefs or place in society; where everyone looks out for the concerns of others and no one is alone."

Honestly, who would attempt such a thing?  I mean, is that even possible?  And that's only the first part of it.  It gets more preposterous as you go on!  And yet, this is what we want to see happen in the world.  This is where our hearts lie.  And last night, I realized just how much I am not alone in effectuating this insanity!  This community has signed on to do the tough work of genuinely, authentically accepting and loving one another - no matter where they are on their journey - and taking that love to the world.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Blessings Abound In Sorrow

Life has been, to put it bluntly: STRESSFUL.  J and I have had innumerable things to do, not the least of which has been planning a wedding and a honeymoon.  Not to mention that Spring is J's busy season at school because he has to coach tennis - which gets him home pretty late.  Now mind you, on most days he only gets home about 20 minutes after I normally do (any other time of year, he actually beats me home by about an hour), but this extra time supremely annoys him.  So, when he does come home, he's grumpy about how much of his life tennis consumes, and then he is consumed by these thoughts for the rest of the evening.  With the family stress we've encountered the past few months, and then the planning and tennis and subsequent fights about all of the above, we've had a really rough time at things.

Fortunately, tennis is over.  His school year officially ended yesterday.  He's a happier camper, but I'm still in the process of recovering from the last few months of living with an unpleasant partner - and I, in turn, have become a difficult partner to live with.  Thankfully, the fights are diminishing, and fatalistic emotions that surround them are dwindling as well.

But here comes the next glitch.  J has to go up to VT for grad school for the summer, and I'm going to accompany him since I have officially quit my job (last day June 18th).  So now I'm looking for jobs, J's preparing for classes, we're both preparing to spend most of the summer in VT, and oh . . . did I mention we have a wedding and honeymoon to plan for?  Plus J's brother is also getting married at the end of the month.  We're going to have to drive down from VT to PA for that, and then drive right back up to VT.  Lots of driving this summer!

Not that I'm complaining.  At this point, much of this planning and these events are exciting!  It's just so much!  And it doesn't help when you're planning a gay wedding as the children of Evangelicals, let me tell you.  We're pretty much doing this all by ourselves without much help.  The silver lining in that though is that everything we do has a personal touch, especially since we don't have a bunch of money.  So for instance, our wedding invitations were done by hand.  All of our loved ones are receiving a piece of our own creativity, time, and sweat.  It makes it seem just a bit more special :)

We're quite proud of 'em!

It's looking like our family contingent at the wedding will be small.  But that just makes those who attend all the more appreciated.  My parents will be there, and maybe a cousin and a brother - I doubt the other one will come with his family. J's brother and his (then) wife will be there, as well as his youngest brother (who I've grown quite close to the past few months).  And a couple of his cousins will be there as well.  Right now, J's parents are leaning towards not coming.

I actually had J invite them down a few weekends ago, because I wanted to hear from them why they weren't coming.  I also took the opportunity to discuss some other things which have been left unsaid between us for the past 2 years.  The discussion got pretty tense for a bit there, but overall I thought it was very positive, for a few reasons:

1.) His parents came down to stay with us in our "den of evil".  (This is really big for them.  They've come a looooong way.  And while I hope we can make up a lot more ground, it's nice to know that the issue of their son being gay isn't so painful and dangerous for them that they feel the need to shun me/us.)
2.) His mom essentially admitted that - while she would not feel good about attending our wedding to "celebrate" it - she would feel OK about coming simply to be a part of our lives. (She is, however, being consistent in support of her husband, and thus is deferring to his decision on the matter.)
3.) Even though his dad is leaning toward not coming, he admitted that he's not where he used to be, and indicated he's still in process.

J's blog covers that weekend far more in-depth than I plan to, so feel free to head over there and read all about it.

I'm not holding my breath for J's parents to attend the wedding.  I've made my peace with it, and I no longer feel like I want to tear into them Poltergeist-style every time I think about them anymore.  It was cathartic to get some of that stuff out.  At the same time, I am still going to be very disappointed and hurt if they're not there :(

Either way, I simply choose to no longer allow other people decide my happiness for this awesome, blessed event!  As one of my favorite Christian authors (John Eldredge) wrote: "Let people feel the weight of who you are and let them deal with it."

Thus, I'm proud to report the happiest news: our honeymoon is set!  It got a little dicey this week, because we planned our lodgings in Provence several months ago (at two places: one coastal cottage for the first 3 days, and a countryside home for a week).  We held off on getting tickets because we were hoping the prices would come down (they didn't).  When we were finally ready to purchase tickets this weekend, we realized that there was NO WAY for us to get to our destination in France in a timely manner!  We would either have to leave the evening of our wedding (probably an hour or so after our reception started) to be there by the following evening, or move the wedding back a few hours (not ideal since the invitations had already been sent out), or we would have to miss out on an entire day and night on the coast (not to mention having wasted a day's rent on the place)!  We emailed both owners, and to our amazement, BOTH were willing to push up our dates by a day, so now we can enjoy our reception, leave the following morning, and not have to worry about missing a day of our honeymoon! :)

The other really great blessing is that we have an EXCESSIVE number of friends and loved ones who want to be at this wedding. We had already hired a caterer to plan food for 100-125 people, but by the time we sent out invitations, we were expecting about 138 people to come!  Needless to say, when people RSVP and say they can't make it, we are both very sad, and slightly relieved all at the same time.  It's really a bizarre combination of emotions.  (I still have about 20 people that I originally wanted to invite, but simply couldn't due to space and money constraints, so if lots of people can't make it, I'm hoping to extend a few more invitations.)  But all that to say, that even though we've had some great difficulty in the past in finding acceptance from our families and previous spiritual communities, we have discovered meaningful and wonderful new friendships (along with a deepening of some older ones), and our cups are proverbially running over! 

So that's where I've been these past few days.  Busy, busy, busy!  And it's not letting up anytime soon. Please pray for us!  I need to find a new job (so far, the best prospect seems to be joining the Commissioned Corps as a pharmacist in the United States Public Health Service.)  In the long run, however, I want to go back to school and eventually become a counselor, which requires me to go back to school.  Thus, I'll be studying for my GREs this summer in VT while J is taking his master's classes.  Obviously much more could be said about these decisions (which may seem sudden and impetuous, but I assure you that the decisions to quit my job and go back to school were arduously investigated).  More on that later.

Until then, my friends . . .