Monthly Archives: July 2015

Matthew

Sad Boy[This is a true story, told directly to me with permission to share it. Even so, I have changed the name and a few details]

When he was 5 years old, Matthew saw the picture of a little boy on the side of a milk carton. He asked his Mom, Rebecca, about it. She explained that the little boy was missing and  the picture was to help other people find him. She felt the heaviness of heart, to even discuss something so terrifylngly horrible to her Mom’s heart.

Matthew couldn’t get that little boy out of his head. He worried about why the little boy got lost, and was fearful that the same thing could happen to him. One day while riding in the car, he was worrying, and ruminating, and asking questions. Rebecca had tried every way she knew to reassure him and provide an appropriate explanation. Finally, in desperation, she pulled the car to the side of the road, turned around and looked him directly in the eye.

“Matthew, you don’t need to worry about that happening to you. Because if you are ever lost, I will crawl through shards of glass for you! I WILL FIND YOU.

Something about the fierce look in her eyes must’ve done the trick, because he never brought it up again. (Or maybe it just scared the heck out of him… sometimes us Moms do that…) 😊

As a young boy, Matthew was good at baseball, but he didn’t like sports and other “typical” boy things. It seemed to bother him, especially since his Dad was a coach. So every night, when they put him to bed, his Mom and Dad would say to him, “If all the little boys in the whole world were lined up, we would choose you…”

When Matthew was 8, he asked Jesus into his heart. His whole family (Mom, Dad and two sisters) gathered around him and prayed together. He took it seriously, his faith, from that moment forward. He loved Jesus and he loved church — which was a good thing because his family was deeply involved. Dad was a church officer, Mom held nearly every role imaginable, and they were an “every time the doors are open” kind of family. Life was good.

When he was 10 he began to realize more than ever before that he wasn’t like the other boys. He was different. He liked being friends with girls but didn’t seem to like them in the same way other boys did. He enjoyed different activities than other boys. He started to wonder… am I gay?

When he was 11 he started coming home from church and going straight to his room. He loved his church, loved all the people who were like family to him, loved his youth group. But he heard things that hurt him and confused him. His church wasn’t one to make fun of people or treat others like they were “beneath them”… except for gay people. It was like the one area where it was okay to lump everyone together and say bad things. He never heard gay people or homosexuality discussed in any context except for “sin” or “sex”. He didn’t understand that, because he’d never had sex with anyone… or even wanted to. He prayed about it… a lot… but didn’t tell anyone. He wasn’t sure who among his family, his friends, or his church family was safe.

When he was 12 he started to get angry at God. He heard from church what God thought about gay people and it seemed so unfair. He asked God, “Why did you make me this way? Why can’t you love me? I don’t want to be gay, but you won’t help me…”

As a teenager he had a girlfriend for four years… and it took a year before he kissed her for the first time. She was more like a soul mate than a girlfriend, really… but it kept people from asking too many questions. One night he called her because he was afraid he was a danger to himself. He started cutting, because it helped the pain go away, at least for awhile.

There were lots of times, at 12… 15… 17… 20… 23… that he wanted to talk to someone. REALLY talk to them. To share his deepest secret, and come clean, and get some good advice. Most of all, more than anything, he wanted people to know who he really was, and still love him.

But he was afraid. All those voices were in his head. The pastor voices. The family voices. The Church voices. Gay people were often compared to pedophiles. Or to people who want to have sex with animals. Or to people that had sex with a different person every night. He didn’t understand those comparisons AT ALL, and he kept waiting for people to stand up and say that one doesn’t have anything to do with the other. He was really, really close to his family… but they heard those same messages and didn’t seem to disagree… so he remained quiet. He carried his burden alone.

Finally, at the age of 26 — after around 16 years of carrying this secret around with him — he could no longer keep it in. He was with his family, and was edgy and anxious. He left, and then just a couple of minutes later he called them. He sounded upset, afraid… like he was hyperventilating. He said, quickly, “I have to tell you something. I’m gay.” 

Rebecca says, “We did the right thing. We reassured him that we loved him. We did the right thing. But when we hung up the phone, we looked at each other and fell apart. I later found my husband crying alone in the closet. You feel the axis of your world shifting, and you have no control over it. We asked our son if we could have 6 months to get used to it, and band together as a family, before telling others. That was a very smart decision.”

After Matthew told his sisters, his family did something way cool. They called him on the phone, all together, and they said….

“Matthew, if all the little boys in the whole world were lined up, we would still choose you….”

It’s a good story. And it’s a not-so-good story.

Rebecca is so happy for her son, and so proud of the man he has become. But she grieves for those times when he was alone and hurting. She aches when she remembers the Sunday afternoons after church, with his bedroom door shut. She wonders what he was thinking. She wonders what the voices in his head were saying to him. She wonders of the impact on his faith.

She remembers asking Matthew why he waited so long to tell them. His response is seared into her heart: “I had to get myself financially ready, in case you turned away from me. Your emotional support is SO important, and knowing that you know is so important. But I had to be ready in case you walked away from me.”

She is angry, that so many Christians — including herself — were so casual in their presentation of God’s anger and disapproval, without ever considering if they were protraying Him correctly. She hurts that every conversation she can ever remember about homosexuality… during all those years when Matthew was wondering about himself… were framed around assumptions of sexual promiscuity, deviant behaviors, and willful sinfulness. She aches with the realization that these discussions never considered the plight of a young boy, a virgin, a Christian, with a heart for God, who was scared and alone.

She agonizes over the fact that he prepared himself financially for the possibility that his family would abandon him. She remembers what she told him as a little boy — I would crawl through glass shards for you — and it pierces her heart to know that he wasn’t certain that it was still true.

He asked her, after the fact, did you ever suspect that I could be gay? She said, “Maybe…”

And then he said words that she will never, ever forget. He looked at Rebecca, suddenly sat straight up, and said, “Mom, you thought maybe I could be gay, but you never gave me a place of mercy and grace to lay my head?”

Those words changed her in an instant. They changed her heart, her head, the very marrow of her soul. She says, “That was NOT Matthew talking — it was Jesus. Those aren’t the kinds of words Matthew would say. I changed in an instant. Jesus was SPEAKING TO ME.” It was her first inkling that this journey would require a lot of healing and transformation… beginning not with Matthew, but with herself.

Now she hears the things people say, not knowing any better, and the Mama Bear within her wants to protect him. When she talks to other people — most especially other Christians — it feels like she is tentatively holding out her hand first, to see if they will bite. She wants to hold Matthew behind her until she can find out who is safe. And if they aren’t safe, she wants to scare them off with a mighty roar… or maybe scratch out their eyes…

One day, during a couples small group Bible study, she felt such a sense of belonging and trust that she got brave, and she told them about it. As she and her husband shared their story, and their unconditional love for Matthew, two men became visibly angry, frequently interrupting their halting description of what the past few months had been like. They got out their Bibles and stood up, angry, in a posture of aggression, talking loudly.

Rebecca doesn’t even remember what they said, but she remembers thinking, “Why are they so loud??”

And she also remembers thinking, “Not safe.”

I’m so grateful that Matthew is well adjusted and at peace… but there are aspects of his story that really hurt my heart. There are too many times I see myself as the one making callous remarks without thinking them through… and doing real harm to a child or another person in the process. I have to wonder, as a Christian, as a parent, as a pediatrician, as a human being… is my potential role in this story what I’m going for? Is it what we want to be about as the Church?

Do we really want to tell our kids, “Whatever your greatest fear, whatever your biggest hurt, whatever your deepest secret… keep it to yourself. Work it out on your own. Get your suit on every Sunday, come listen to our words, and then go home and shut your bedroom door and sort it out.”

Do we really want to tell our friends, “When you are at the lowest point in your lives… hurting badly enough for manly men to go hide in the closet and cry… you must not ask us to listen and cry with you, unless you are willing to first boldly state that you agree with our policies. And you must accept that when we stand over you with our loud, raised voices… even though it feels very much like condemnation and hurt… you must accept that it is actually love.”

Really? Friends… family… churches… human beings… is this what we are striving for? Is it the Gospel? Is it representative of the hands and feet of Christ?

I don’t think it’s what ANY OF US intend… but I think it is the reality of what we are doing. Every day, every minute… these insane arguments… the loud voices… the “culture wars”… the lack of respect on either side… the behind-closed-doors jokes about (fill in your blank) gay people/trans people/conservative people/church people. One side screams, “You obviously don’t believe your Bible!” and the other side responds, “You are obviously a bigot!” Too often, it isn’t about love, or truth… or grace, or mercy… or the Bible, or science.

Too often, it is a TURF WAR. Too often, we are just a bunch of gang bangers, slashing and shooting and exiling anyone who enters our territory. Too often, it is the kids… the bystanders… the innocent who are wounded.

Love is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice, but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.

Love never gives up… never loses faith… is always hopeful… and endures through every circumstance.

Love will crawl through shards of glass, to come and find you.

All That I Know Isn’t Much

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.
(1 Corinthians 13:10-13)

Remember lying on your back picking shapes out of the clouds? That’s what I think about every time I read about the “puzzling reflections in a mirror”. Look! A hippopotamus! Fun fact: when I was in med school I always saw body parts in the clouds. Where others saw a dinosaur or a daffodil, I saw the aorta or the large intestine. Medical school does not necessarily produce normal people.

We don’t get too worked up over differences of opinion when it comes to a cumulus cloud… but we surely do over other things. Like race and ethnicity. Or gun control. Or the definition of marriage. Or policemen. Or flags. Or immigration. Or rainbows. These days, referring to someone as “he” rather than “she” is enough to draw the battle lines.

I don’t think we intend to be contentious or mean-spirited… it’s just that these topics seem to hit where it hurts. We seem to be at some sort of turning point in history. Even trying to describe THAT brings about sharp differences of perception: where some people see the dawn, freedom, and a bright future… others see the end of life as we know it.

None of us are objective, much as we’d like to pretend we are. The truth is, each of us brings our own wisdom and knowledge and experience to the table… but it’s colored with our fears and hurts and insecurities. Put it all together, and nearly any sentence uttered can result in the age-old Southern expression:

“Them’s fightin’ words!”

I think we desire certainty more than anything. We want to KNOW… and we want to KNOW THAT WE ARE RIGHT. Unfortunately, much of life doesn’t lend itself to certainty, and matters of faith require… well, faith. That’s uncomfortable. So our response is often to gather together with other people who agree with us. We gather together in clubs, or denominations, or schools of thought, or advocacy groups… often for very good reasons. But another reason may be this: there’s something about a lot of people all saying the same thing that provides confidence. (It’s why I love being in Neyland Stadium in the fall — there’s just something awesome about 100,000 people who all agree with me!)

Into the midst of our desire for certainty… our longing to be right…  and our fierce, chin-lifted, fist-clenched posture… comes Paul’s refreshingly authentic words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…

All that I know now is partial and incomplete…

Wait. What?

Isn’t Paul the guy whose words we so often use to beat each other over the head with? Weren’t his words the deep trench that put our nation at war with ourselves over slavery? That led to the splitting of denominations over the role of women? Aren’t his words the grand canyon separating us over how to define marriage?

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror…

All that I know now is partial and incomplete…

Is it possible that some uncertainty is okay? When faced with really complex things… is it possible that it’s okay to not have all the answers? Is it possible that faith is less about having our theology tied up into a tidy package… and more about trusting in a God who is way bigger than us?

It isn’t as though Paul left us hanging, either. He didn’t just say, “Life is complicated, so do your best… have fun… chill out… hakuna matata.” No, he gave us very specific marching orders in how to conduct ourselves when we are uncertain:

LOVE.

The whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 says, in essence, that everything we generally put our trust in is worthless without love. Knowledge… wisdom… faith that moves mountains… sacrificial giving… the gift of prophecy… eloquent speaking and preaching… all of it adds up to nothing without love.

I wonder, if we were to use this passage as our method of grading all the arguments that occur over “what’s right”… if the score wouldn’t end up being 0-0.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that if the guy who wrote half of the New Testament can say that everything he knows now is partial and incomplete, maybe we ought to follow suit. Perhaps it’s time to season our demands and our turf battles and our culture wars with humility and gracious uncertainty. Perhaps, in doing so, we would begin to have discussions and relationships that are, in the Bible’s method of scoring, actually worth something.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being divided over our certain beliefs… and instead become unified by our faith in the midst of uncertainty.

Three things will last forever…

Not certainty. Not truth. Not wisdom. Not theology. Not science. Not marriage. Not a specific nation. Not a specific race.

Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.

 

 

 

Alex

Boy Curled in BallThis is a true story, shared personally with me as part of a 2-hour conversation with the Mom in this story. She is one of a group of women affectionately called the Mama Bears, and these women changed my life. She gave me permission to share any part of her story that would help others. Even so, I am changing the names and a few of the circumstances, because you never know what’s gonna happen with the internet.

I’m sharing this story now, because I have been stunned over the past week at the power of words to hurt, to wound, to pierce, to divide.

It is my deepest prayer that this story might do the opposite: heal, teach, remind us of who our audience REALLY is, and bring us closer together. Or … at least a little less far apart…

Sherrie is a Christian, a wife, a mother of three beautiful children. She and her husband “lived at church,” a small, Southern Baptist congregation who loved each other and loved the Lord. Her extended family is large, and on that particular day, they were all over at her house for a birthday celebration.

The year was 1997, and in the midst of the family celebration, the TV was on… tuned, by chance, to The Oprah Winfrey Show. If you come from a big family like I do, you can easily imagine the scene: laughter, loud talk, good-natured teasing, and multiple conversations. Kids running around, tugging on sleeves, trying to make themselves heard and join into the “big people” talk.

Suddenly, the room became quiet as all attention turned to the television.  The guest on Oprah, comedian and talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres, had just publicly announced that she was a lesbian. Just like that, the tenor of the room changed, as this squabbling, close-knit, religious, conservative family absorbed the news and found a common bond in a shared opponent. They made fun of her, told gay jokes, spoke words of disgust, pronounced God’s certain judgment, and lamented on what the world was coming to. They were not by nature mean people, but they were in a safe place, with family, protected by the walls of their own home, able to speak freely without fear of being misunderstood. Few of them, if any, would have spoken the same words in the same manner in public. They believed in God’s grace, and were compassionate people… but this…? It was simply too much.

After awhile, Sherrie realized that her 8-year old son, Alex, was missing. He loved being a part of the whole family, and it was highly unusual for him to not be in the center of it, poking his head into every conversation. She didn’t think too much of it at first, but when he remained absent, she went looking for him.

She found him in his room, in a corner, huddled into a ball on the floor, sobbing. She was terrified, panicked, with absolutely no idea what had happened. She gathered him into her arms, asking over and over again, “What’s wrong?? What happened??” He refused to answer her. He eventually calmed down, and life went on… but it seemed to Sherrie that something changed on that day.

It would be more than twelve years later that Sherrie would finally have her answer, when Alex finally shared his deepest secret: I’m gay.

Just before that fateful day, Alex had a growing certainty that “something was wrong” with him. He felt different than his friends. He had no words to describe what he was feeling, and was just beginning to wonder if he should talk to his Mom or Dad, or one of his older siblings. Or maybe his favorite uncle, who always loved to spend time with him and was his greatest hero. As uncertain as he was about what was occurring inside, he was in the middle of a big, safe family… secure in the knowledge that he would always be cared for and loved.

But on that day, Alex was shocked to the core to realize that the differences he was feeling inside were disgusting to his family. In the manner of an inexperienced child, he internalized every word and magnified them. Disgusting. Gross. Abomination. Shameful. Hell-bound. Unlovable. Enemy of God.

Right or wrong, Alex reached a painful conclusion on that day: his family was not safe. He was on his own.

And so, Alex went through the difficult, topsy-turvy seasons of late childhood and adolescence and young adulthood isolated and alone. He carefully guarded his deepest secret, and if he shared it with anyone else, it would only be someone he was certain would understand. He sought out others who were outcasts… anyone who was “different”… and he guarded his heart against a family and a God who he believed found him disgusting.

Nearly two decades later, Sherrie has worked hard to forge a strong relationship with her son. But she grieves for the “lost years”… the times when she couldn’t be there for him, because she had no idea what he was dealing with.

Which brings me back to the present. I have to wonder, on this Independence Day, with our country more divided along religious and ideological and theological and political lines than ever before… who is our audience, REALLY? When we are in a group of family, able to speak freely… is there a young son or niece or cousin who is listening for completely different reasons than we might imagine? When we spew out words of anger and disgust at the “gay agenda” or at the “gay haters”… assuming that our words are directed at who we THINK we are speaking to… who else is listening at the edges of the crowd or the end of the pew, feeling the pierce of a knife-wound to the soul?

I believe that every moment, and each encounter, is sacred. There are no intermissions, no time-outs in life. Much as we like to believe that we can prepare for our biggest moments, more often they occur completely unbeknownst to us… in the privacy of our own home, or in an aside conversation at work, or in the hallways at church, or in the aisle of the grocery store. In those moments, when we think we can let our guard down and speak our mind… these are the moments that can become forever magnified.

Friends, please… in these days of uncertainty… please watch your words. Be respectful of others. Consider the possibility that those on the other side are simply human beings with a different opinion. Remember little Alex, eavesdropping on an adult conversation, with his life forever altered by the power of the spoken word.

If Sherrie had the power to change one thing, and one thing only, she wouldn’t change Alex’s sexual orientation. She trusts God with how He chose to create Alex. No, if she could change anything, she would change herself, her words and that of her family on that fateful day. She would slap duct tape over every mouth… she would pay attention to how quiet her son suddenly became… she would rejoice in the precious child that God had given her… and she would LISTEN.

For God’s sake – and for Alex’s sake – be kind.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my own body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.

Three things will last forever – faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13