This 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