Coming Out

…… A Journey of Acceptance, Love, and Joy

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

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.

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