Coming Out

…… A Journey of Acceptance, Love, and Joy

Last Episode: Today

It’s been good to write this story and be reminded of the slow but steady progress of my understanding of GLBTQ folks.  Being straight  makes it difficult to identify with these friends, but their ready grace and love has been extended to me over and over…more times than I can count.  I have learned so much about love and grace from queer folk and I know there is much more they can teach me.

I still carry the big question with me: How can we exclude such loving, devout, and talented people from the church?.  It is truly a travesty.  I still carry a passion that Friends be more open to the cost of excluding GLBTQ people from full participation in our faith communities.  I really appreciate the work several meetings are doing to study and consider that such exclusion violates the clear message of Christ and, indeed, the whole Bible.

I have taken some hits since I have come out as fully accepting and supportive of inclusion.  Most of them have been private, but one pastor asserted at a public meeting that I don’t believe the Bible. The comment came in reaction to my plea to put the Spirit above the Bible.  I said.”When Jesus left he promised to send an advocate (the Spirit)  to remind us of all that Jesus had taught.  He sent the living Spirit, not a book.”

That said, my few experiences of being shamed do not remotely compare to the suffering of those who are told that Jesus would never accept them because of their sexual identity.  My heart breaks for them.

Thanks to all of you who patiently read this blog and who sent such encouraging responses.  You are my lifeline.  I truly and blessed by your friendship.  You have kept me from despair and given me true hope.

This is the last episode of this blog.  I’ll return to my other blog: http: //born-to-eat-toast.blogspot.com.

Peace and Joy,  Stan

At last, a trustworthy Guide

I had never felt so lost and alone as I did when I stood at the edge of what seemed to me to be a huge abyss.  It was a point of decision yet I had no certain guidance.  My heart longed to offer unequivocal acceptance and affirmation to GLBTQ folk–no more judgment, no reservations– yet my head kept reminding me that I was throwing a lot away if I took that step.  My self-talk was, “Who are you to challenge the learned scholars and Biblical experts with a different interpretation of the passages dealing with homosexuality?”  I had no answer, I was just a guy  trying to love as Christ loved –end of story.

My struggle took me back to George Fox’s journal.  I was reminded that he was once in a position similar to mine.  He could find no one among scholars, preachers, counselors or anyone who could address the spiritual restlessness in his heart.  Then at a time when he was in despair, he heard a voice within say:  “There is one, even Christ Jesus who can speak to your condition.”  He recounted his response:  “Then my heart did leap for joy….”

As I reread those words, it seemed as though scales fell from my eyes.  Of course!  I had already begun to experience the answers I longed for; the Divine Spirit was already guiding me.  I had only to let go of my fears and worries about my reputation and decide to wholly and without reservation be a welcoming and affirming presence among my gay and lesbian friends.  I could assure them that “God” loves them just as they are, and that God would be faithful to move in their heart and provide whatever teaching that would be helpful to their spiritual journey.  There was nothing left for me to do except to love.

I still read and believe the Bible.  It’s been the center of my preaching and theology for close to 40 years.  But I no longer worship the Bible; instead, I worship the Spirit, the one who was to come and remind us of all that Jesus taught. If the whole message of the Bible is centered around love, and Jesus’ teaching was a huge expansion of what it means to love, then why should I let one or two isolated verses trump that overarching message?  I found these insights in the context of my Christian faith but I know that others are finding that Divine Guide through other faiths.  Sorting that all out is really not our problem.  Jesus promised to send the Divine Spirit to teach about sin, righteousness, and judgment; I am satisfied to let go of that task  and worry about learning to love as only God could love.

I’ve never looked back from that insight, and I have been filled with joy for all the new friendships that have come my way.  And I have found a way to stay centered in my own faith.  I can now do that because I allow the Spirit to judge my best thinking and/or understanding by bringing all my rational beliefs and questions in to the mystical chamber (prayer), and laying them before God for God’s revelation.  Such revelation is always transforming because it is based on the Spirit’s full mystery and not the tiny brains of us humans with all our prejudices and foibles.

Some are sure to find this outrageous; I can do nothing about that.  And I have no desire to debate it either.  I have nothing to prove other than to witness to the great expansive world that the Spirit has opened.  And in that expansive world there is full acceptance for everyone.

The hard part was yet ahead of me:  really “coming out” with my beliefs.  I’m such a chicken and I am so jealous of my reputation among Friends that I was sure that I would waffle out and not be faithful.  The truth is, though, that when the time came, I was anxious to be an advocate for the GLBTQ folks and was proud to be one working for their full and complete acceptance among
Friends.  No other choice even occurred to me.

P.S.  This blog is just about my feelings and experiences.  It simple tells what happened to me on my journey.  It is not written as a polemic or argument for my point of view, it is just a report.  So please, if you want to debate you are out of luck because regardless of your beliefs or feelings.  This is what happened to me.

The next post will be the last in this series – sort of an epilogue.  I’m thankful to you faithful readers and your wonderful comments.

excuses and apologies

I’m really sorry about my long absence from this blog.  Not that it hasn’t been on my mind every day, maybe not the blog itself as much as the message It carries and the weight it might or might not have among my evangelical friends. 

Its just that I have been dealing with a lot of stress and grief in my family related to my Dad’s death.  And a couple of other life-changing decisions—I just haven’t had the energy to speak from my heart.  One of the most moving help offered during this process of grieving is that two friends I adore reached out to me with a unconditional offer of support and love.  I attended their wedding and fell in love with them immediately.  They were soul-healing friends during this time.  Anyway, no more excuses…Next chapter should be up sometime this week.

 

Episode #4 LIVING STONES

A first century apostle named Peter coined this cool phrase, “living stones” as he was writing to encourage several of the new churches.  I’m going to steal this phrase and use it in a way that has nothing to do with Peter’s intention, but fits nicely with this episode of my blog.  If you feel this is outrageous or sinful, take a number; there are a lot of folks ahead of you with more serious charges.

So there was this long period following the sort of sensational life-changing events that shocked me into losing all certainty in the things I had been spoon fed about God’s and Scriptures’ teaching on homosexuality.  But on my journey I encountered many GLBTQ folks and also encountered some rabid gay haters, and some equally rabid Church/God/religion haters.  I ran into some folks who were engaged in homosexual behavior but weren’t gay or bisexual and some who were gay and living a straight life.  In my limited experience and understanding of how this all worked, my impression was that those who were living a life that directly contradicted their true nature were the most miserable.

It is the wonderful, mostly GLBTQ folks who I am calling “living stones.”  By that I mean that they are the people who over time became building blocks in my understanding of GLBTQ experiences and world view.  They were the ones who most helped me see the pain and mistreatment experienced by GLBTQ people at the hands of a church that I loved passionately and by colleagues whose companionship I deeply treasured.  My vision for their inclusion in the church became a passion that burned in my heart and one that I deeply hoped to see come to fruition in my lifetime.  It was through them that new certainties began to replace the old.

Each of my new friends in the GLBTQ community has a story from which I learned a great deal.  Surprisingly to me, they offered more patience and kindness to those that condemned them than they received in return.  Mostly due to my friendship, several LGBTQ people began to attend my church.  I told them they could be safe there but they couldn’t expect to serve in any leadership roles unless they were “closeted.”.  My words to them must have sounded like betrayal, and indeed they were.  There are few things I regret more than having been the messenger of exclusion and rejection to these hopeful friends.  To be brutally honest, I was just too afraid that I would lose my job and/or my reputation to live into my convictions.  Then when an anti-gay rights measure was on the ballot during a state political campaign, a respected woman in the congregation stood up in worship one Sunday and verbally abused all LGBTQ people, equating them with murders, perverts, and sexual predators and describing how God saw them as  abomination, I shirked my responsibility as the spiritual leader of that Church and just sat there and let it happen.  I could have at least condemned such vicious speech and irresponsible use of scripture, but I didn’t.  I failed to speak on behalf of Jesus’ call to love everyone…everyone.  It was a teachable moment that I failed to utilize the on behalf of my dear friends. .  I had sacrificed these friends rather than speaking truth to the congregation on their behalf.

All but two of those friends stopped coming to church and, despite my many apologies, no longer trusted me as their advocate.  I was tormented by the immense wrong I had committed and began to feel unworthy of my pastoral calling.  I was neither like Christ who spoke boldly against the state of Judaism, nor like George Fox, who courageously spoke out against empty religion.  I still, in my moments of solitude, compose a response that I should have given to that vicious attack and yet that opportunity was lost.  Ironically, shortly after that I felt led to leave that church and all those people I loved.  It was true; when I disobeyed out of fear, something worse than I feared became my fate.

These LBGTQ friends, who had counted on me, eventually very graciously forgave me, but they still reflect on that worship service as one of the most painful experiences of their lives.  That experience greatly reduced my confidence so that I stopped reaching out to LGBTQ folks.  When I moved to another church I seldom mentioned my passion for the acceptance of gays and lesbians.  I didn’t feel strong enough to raise the issue because I didn’t trust my own willingness to take the risks involved.

Still, the wall of conviction that my “living stones” had built remained intact, though dormant, in the heart of my soul.  And the voice within, the questions, and the encounters were always in the forefront of my mind.  At that time I heard in a sermon by Myron Augsburger who said, “Regret is like a bulldog bite that sinks its teeth into the dead flesh of the past and refuses to let go.”  I knew I had to move on, forgive myself, and obey that inner voice.

Episode # 3: Myth Gives Way To Experience

My secretary stuck her head through the door.  “Stan, there’s a Paul Osterland on the line for you; he sounds pretty distressed.  Do you want to take it?”  ” OK,” I responded, “but first make sure he’s not a copy machine salesman; they use that ruse to get past the secretary.”  The glare she gave me told me I was better advised to find out myself.

“Hello, Paul, how can I help you?”

“Pastor, my brother Rick is in the hospital with serious pneumonia and the docs don’t hold out much hope. My pastor recommended that I contact you to see if you would go with me when I visit him.”

After a bit more conversation we agreed to meet at the hospital and visit Rick together.  Paul lived a hundred miles or so away, so we set a date to meet a couple days after our talk.

I met Paul for the first time at the hospital.  He was a very intense guy who had a mind that ran on overtime all the time.  He was like Robin Williams on steroids. He could actually talk faster than I could think.  We shared the same cynicism, the same hope, and a similar sense of humor so we became fast friends.

When we arrived at Rick’s room, we were asked to put on full hazmet suits – gloves, gown, hood, and booties –the whole thing.  I felt like a robot because when I turned my head the window in the hood stayed put, so I had to turn my whole body to get around.  I was wondering why a case of pneumonia required such precautions.

Rick couldn’t talk because of feeding tubes and breathing tubes; he could only respond with his eyes.  We told him that God loved him just like he was and would love to be asked into his heart.  Paul was the better eye movement interpreter so he did most of the “talking”  but he felt sure his brother had agreed to follow Jesus.  Rick did look like he was more joyful than when we first got there and I was glad for both Paul and his beloved brother.

Paul and I sat on the steps of the hospital and talked for quite a long time afterwards.  I asked about the hazmet suits and he told me that Rick was gay and had contracted AIDS and that it was responsible for the pneumonia that was killing him.  This was in ’85 and I knew little about AIDS, except that it was a monster killing people by the hundreds.  I had just stared the monster in the face without even knowing what it was.

I made a couple of subsequent visits to Paul’s brother even though he was becoming increasingly incoherent because of the meds and the progression of the disease.  When he died a couple of days after my last visit, the news of his death simply broke my heart.  I was heartbroken because of his death, but also for his life.  I grieved for his life because, as I learned from Paul, Rick had never gotten to be loved for who he was and he was constantly reminded he wasn’t deserving of God’s or the Church’s unconditional love. He lived under constant condemnation and had to hear many of the big-named (and big haired) celebrity evangelists describe his disease as God’s punishment for being gay.

I grieved for his death because Rick never got to use his many gifts to glorify the Creator or to dance the dance of freedom and empowerment.  He had an excellent voice and sang opera in New York for several years. When he moved back to my city, he sang as part of the chorus for the local Opera.

About a week after his death, I  officiated at  Rick’s memorial service in a small chapel in my church.  Some of the church women were willing to make sandwiches and small snacks.  The people who attended were mostly from the GLBTQ community, people who had become close friends of Rick.  The reception in our fellowship hall was joyful and open.  I remember saying to myself, “These folks are really friendly and gracious, and funny!”  I felt accepted, even honored, by their reaching out to me.

Then disaster struck.  I saw my son Max, who was about two years old, eat a half eaten pickle given to him by one of Rick’s friends.  I rushed over to him and said, “Please don’t give Max anything out of your sandwiches, OK?”  He laughed and said, “Why, are you worried I’ll give him AIDS?”  “Yes,” I said rather bluntly. He sensed my anxiety and said, “Relax, I don’t have AIDS and neither does anyone else in this room. Most gays don’t have AIDS, okay?  But I promise to keep my pickles to myself.”  He gave me a hug and went on his way. He eased my fears a bit but I still worried and often dreamed about Max having AIDS.  It was later scientifically proved that pickle sharing was not a leading cause for the spreading of AIDS.

I suppose this story doesn’t seem that traumatic or emotional to one just reading it, but my experience totally changed my attitude toward GLBTQ folks.  I went home after the memorial and prayed for a place of acceptance for gays and lesbians, and spent most of my prayer time weeping before God and asking how it could be true that God would reject these wonderful folks.  I reached out to GLBTQ folks and tried to find be a place of trust and acceptance.  Eventually closeted GLB folks came to me for help, some from my own denomination, even one pastor who remains in the closet today, and another pastor who was engaged to the daughter of a leader in an extremely conservative denomination and wondered if he should tell his fiance that he was gay. That was one of the five most stupid questions I have been asked in 34 years of ministry.  I simply told him that there were no options if he loved her than to tell her immediately.  Every other option would make her daily bear the weight of his dishonesty.

It was such a joy to be in place where I could reach out in a loving way to GLBTQ people.  It was an incredibly meaningful ministry.

But I was left with the same questions.  How COULD an unconditionally loving God exclude gays from the kingdom?  How could we be so cruel and judgmental towards them?  How could we not care enough to bring them into the church and let them use their gifts for the sake of others?   Although 25 years have passed since I met Paul and Rick, I still weep over the pain, rejection, belittlement, and shame my dear GLBTQ friends are made to feel.

Episode #2 Liminality

Episode #2  Liminality

My first day at a new suburban church in a large city changed my life’s direction.  I was introduced to Sarah (not her real name) by a trusted friend.  After a short bit of small talk, Sarah said, “My fiance and I are leaving for grad school in a year.  I’m working until he finishes his degree.  Meanwhile, I’d like something challenging to do just to keep my mind stimulated for this coming year.  Is there something I could do for you that would help you and me both?”  Under my breath I said, “Thank you, Jeeeeeesus!  Is this the treasure buried in the field?”  When she indicated she could meet right then, I quickly shook hands with all the big givers and met her in my office.  I wrote a list of possible issues for her to study: Biblical inerrancy, Peace in a time of war, Quaker pastoral leadership, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage, and a few others.  As we went down the list, she winced at homosexuality.  “I’m not really interested in that…anything involving women’s rights or leadership that I could study?”

I pounced, “Well if you really want to be challenged, I’d really love to have someone look into the thinking around homosexuality.  I’m really concerned in that area but haven’t had to time to research it very deeply.  I feel quite a bit of urgency around the topic.” So she agreed to research the growing edges of science, theology, psychology) and report her findings to me each week.

Her reports were astounding.  Her research was excellent, exposing me to an incredible volume of information from all sides involved in the ongoing debate.  I learned that about 8% of every species (mammals, I think) were born with same-sex orientation, and I learned that some psychologists were lobbying to take it off the “abnormal list.”  I learned that some respectable theologians (most mainline) had combined exegesis, historical records, and cultural phenomena and come up with a quite decent argument that most of the Roman texts cited against same sex relations refer to depravity, (the Greek and Roman practice of men of power taking young males to live in their homes as use them as prostitutes, for example) and that the sin of Sodom was first of all disobedience, selfishness, open violence, often forcible rape, and refusal to listen to the Lord.  Sex was used to assert power, much like it is in our modern day prisons.  Even though I learned a lot, I would not abandon the teaching that had been taught me over the years.  But each of these revelations punched a hole in my bag of certainties.

My meetings with Sarah were like a seminary class in human sexuality.  I told her about my experience at my previous church and how I was still wrestling with the same questions.  I really needed to know about new thinking from all the different disciplines.  Sarah supplied that information in spades.  She quickly opened herself to those new truths while I lagged behind.  By the time she was done with the research, she had moved to a point of concluding that homosexual behavior is not a sin and that, in any event, the clearest direction of scripture is to love everyone.  If she was going to err, she was happy to err on the side of loving someone and letting God work things out with them. 

Sarah eventually put together a two-Sunday presentation on her information and beliefs and was invited to present it in a Sunday school class where the scholars and intellectuals held their discussions each Sunday. She did a great job and gained a great deal of respect from the congregation as her research presented new questions about homosexuality.

By then my bag of certainties was almost empty.  I wasn’t certain about what I had been taught, nor was I certain about the new stuff on same-sex marriage.  Here I was again – clinging to certainties that weren’t even certain.  I began to study Sarah’s notes and do some digging and it only made things worse.  I had a choice to make but I sadly valued my position as pastor of this church and lacked the courage to be straightforward, so I let fear kept my mouth shut.

By then, the Spirit’s beckoning had become less gentle; it t led to turmoil, even torment as I wrestled against it. I successfully blocked it out from my consciousness, leaving me feeling disobedient and hypocritical.  It reminded me of having been invited to a friend’s birthday party when I was in the fifth grade.  After a while, our host announced she was going to take us all to a movie.  “OH NO!  It’s a sin to go to movies because they were full of  depravity, or so I had been taught. So I sneaked out and ran for home, trying to stay off the road where I could be seen.  I got lost and crossed muddy creeks, and walked through brambles that had my legs bleeding.  Finally I found the highway and ran for home.  My mom saw me and listened to my story and said, “Stan, you could have gone to that movie if you wanted to.”  I went ballistic.  I thought I would be her little Christian hero, but instead I felt like a fool.  I began to ask myself about all the other sins–bowling, pool, dancing, playing cards, etc.  I began to lose confidence in teachers that “had all the answers” and to mistrust their Biblical perspectives.

I knew I couldn’t go on like this, I was left standing on shifting ground yet I had no safer ground on which to stand.  I was reminded of the early Quakers who left the State Church and, to their great peril, jumped into a new untried spirituality.  God seemed to be the one who was urging me forward so I let go of my need for certainty and just asked God to lead me.  I dove off the safe pier of belief into the stormy waters of liminality where I tread theological water with no help in sight.  Making things worse was the fact that fear robbed me of the courage to engage God on what seemed God’s call on me to speak prophetically to Quakers. I had committed to teach truth that reflected the tone of the Faith and Practice (the Quaker statements of faith), but it listed homosexuality among perversions like bestiality, a description I couldn’t embrace.   Saaaay something’s wrong here, the inner voice kept insisting.

Where could I find peace and unity between my soul and God’s calling?  Like the apostle Paul had written nearly Two thousand years before, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

 

Episode # 1 Saaaay, something’s wrong here!

Phil (not his real name) and I walked into his favorite gay bar.  I entered with some fear and trepidation (OK a LOT of sheer terror) expecting to find that I was in a house of iniquity where every kind of perversion was practiced.  I expected there would be men in butt exposing leather chaps, and lewd things happening in the booths for all to see, and “cruisers” who would see that I was straight and pounce on me to turn me gay.  Instead, it just looked like any other bar; there were straight folks, some lesbian and gay couples, a couple of cross dressers, assorted single folks and us, a gay man and a straight pastor.

I guess it would be helpful to tell how I got there, eh?

I was serving as pastor in a small town church; it was early in my life as a pastor so I was pretty green.  One evening I got a call from Phil; he seemed desperate to talk.  We met in my office and he shared that he was gay, married, and in a job that wouldn’t tolerate gays at all.  He had children and a good family, yet he was miserable and had to daily fight a herculean battle to stay true to his wedding vows; he was full of guilt and self-loathing.  I was completely out of my league and really didn’t know how to help him.  He sensed I was clueless about gays, so he challenged me to come with him to a gay bar so I could see the “gay life” for myself and gain some insight into his struggle.  I told him “sure,” but was thinking “yeah, I’ll go right after hell installs an ICEE machine.”  He said, Great, let’s go now; I had no way out.  So, like a lamb being led to its slaughter, I fell in stride with Phil, quietly composing my parting sermon for the coming Sunday.

Among all the surprises that greeted me upon entering the bar, the one that struck me the most was the change in Phil.  He quickly changed into a Phil that I had never seen before.  The moment we walked into the place, he became very gregarious, outgoing, relaxed, and happy.  It was like black and white.  He wasn’t flirty or anything, just “at home.”  I said, “Phil, you look like a man whose terminal cancer diagnosis turned out to be just an infected hangnail. What’s with the happiness?”  He said, “This is the only place on earth I can be my authentic self, free from guilt, fear, shame, and worry about who is going to find out I’m gay.”  He shed tears as he told me of the incredible burden that all that pretending had become and how hypocritical he felt and how alone he was in his fear, shame, and pain.  It was then that my soul first delivered that haunting message, “Saay, something’s wrong here.”

Phil and I met in his bar from then forward.  He shared openly and honestly, and I cried with him and laughed with him. Then one day his wife came to see me and told me he had left her and his kids and moved to parts unknown.  I’ve never seen him nor heard from him since.  I have shed a lot of tears since that time, asking what I could have done.  I felt I had let him down, but I really didn’t know anywhere he could have gone to find the acceptance he craved.   Simply said, I had failed to give him hope.  That experience haunted me for many years.  I still pray for Phil and hope he has found the peace and joy of Christ in his heart and found a church that would accept his authentic self.

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was like a Pharisee, putting the law above love.  This small battle was just beginning, and I was still able to quash it and hang on to my certainties.  But that was just the beginning of a thirty-plus year battle for my heart and soul.

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