Category Archives: Human Sexuality

Unfolding Miracles: Human Sexuality

“Imagine that you woke up in a world where everyone looked pretty much like you do, and you thought it was a normal world… until you realized it wasn’t. People around you said yellow was blue, and down was up. They were talking about murder and rape and stealing as though they were the right moral choices… while self-sacrifice and giving and loving were the wrong choices. You begin to realize that EVERYONE except you seems to agree, and you start to wonder if you’re crazy. You think surely someone, somewhere will say words that make sense… but it never happens. You’re able to blend in because you look similar to everyone else, but you know that every fiber of your being is an alien in this world. You know that very soon something will happen that will reveal to the world that you are not like them. You live every moment terrified of a mistake… while at the same time feeling like such a piece of crap because you are pretending to be something you don’t even WANT to be. If you can truly put yourself in that place, and feel the terror and confusion and guilt, then you can maybe understand 1% of what I live every single moment of every single day.”

This is the description of an articulate, sweet, young transgender teenager. It haunts me. And it’s been echoed, in one form or another, by thousands of young LGBTQ kids that I’ve met and listened to and cried with. It’s the reason that I can’t keep my mouth shut about this topic, even if it alienates some friends or colleagues or fellow Christians. Ignorance, even if it is covered in or excused by “faith”, is still ignorance. And it gives birth to a form of “love” that is actually much closer to hate.

So here goes. My attempt to take a scientific grand rounds presentation, and turn it into a blog post! It will be much longer than blog posts are “supposed to be,” but it can’t be helped.

ChromosomesIt all starts with the chromosomes.

We have 23 pairs of chromosomes, of which one pair are the sex chromosomes. Two X chromosomes (XX) and you’re genetically a female. One of each (XY) and you’re a male (shown in the picture). Our DNA is the “building block” of our bodies, determining everything from our eye color to our risk of developing specific diseases. The sex chromosomes, then, are the “building blocks” of our human sexuality. While some of the other chromosomes also impact our sexuality, this chromosome pair is the biggie. Rarely, there may be an extra sex chromosome, extra parts on one or both chromosomes, or something missing from one or both chromosomes. But in general, the sex chromosomes determine whether we are a boy or girl and get the ball rolling in lots of ways.

The first thing that the sex chromosomes direct, in an unborn human baby, is the internal sexual organs. This is called the gonadal sex, meaning the boy/girl parts on the INSIDE. Boys have testes; girls have ovaries.Gonadal sex

These inside sex organs aren’t visible to us… but my GOODNESS are they important. They produce hormones, and direct the formation of the outside boy or girl parts. The testes of boys produces mainly testosterone, while the ovaries of girls produces mainly estrogen. But the pathways of how these sex factories make hormones is complicated… and sometimes in a long pathway (kind of like a recipe with lots of steps) something gets off-kilter, and the actual hormones produced may be quite different. Even when everything goes according to plan, small amounts of the opposite hormone are released.

Phenotype and Brain SexualityNext up: the internal sex organs, by producing testosterone or estrogen, then direct the formation of the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. (If you don’t think these hormones are incredibly powerful, then you haven’t experienced one of my hot flashes!!)

The outside parts are formed by the end of the first trimester, and are fairly simple… usually. If a baby has a penis and testicles, they are assigned the male gender at birth. If the baby has a vagina, they are assigned the female gender. This assignment usually happens by the medical team within moments after birth, and is finalized within the hour in the medical chart. Surprisingly to some, though, it isn’t always obvious… and a baby may rarely be born with what is called “ambiguous genitalia”, meaning we can’t tell from the outside parts whether the baby is a boy or girl. In the old days, the baby was assigned a gender based on what was the easiest to make “look good” on the outside through surgery. Nowadays, with our ongoing knowledge of what’s happening INSIDE, it isn’t nearly that simple. But that’s another topic for another day.

The other really important part of the sex hormones is to develop the brain sexuality. Now, most of us don’t really think about the sex of our brain… but there’s all sorts of things, from the way our brain is structured to how it works that bear witness to our brain sexuality. Whether we think out loud or quietly… whether or not we can multitask… even the physical size of certain structures within our brain is heavily impacted by the sex hormones. These things have been discovered through highly precise imaging, as well as functional MRI’s… and the subject could make up 10 more blog posts all on its own! But for now, just think about the age-old saying,“Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” While some of the behaviors we assign to women or men are stereotypes, and while many of us feel that we don’t fit the prototype, the truth remains that there are important, irreversible differences in brain structure based on the sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, and the hormones that they direct.

But here’s the seriously tricky part. The outside parts are formed in the first trimester, but brain sexuality finalized in the second and early-third trimester. And in between, a lot can happen… meaning they may not “match” in the way we think they should. (That’s a teaser – more about that in a minute.)

Gender identity

So. Once the sex chromosomes, the inside parts, the outside parts, and the brain sexuality are in place, then the next thing to be formed is gender identity.

Gender identity is our internal sense of whether we are a girl or a boy. It’s a complex interaction between our sex chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside parts, hormones, and brain sexuality. It is probably set in place by the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester (whenever the brain sexuality is fully completed)… but it isn’t actually expressed until a child is around 18 months or 2 years old. Expression is usually complete by age 3 – and if you don’t believe me, just TRY calling a 3-year-old boy a girl, and see what kind of response you get! Most often (but not always) it lines up with the sex chromosomes and internal/external sex organs. Gender identity is an involuntary biological response (more on that later) that is formed in utero and expressed in early childhood, and there’s no evidence that anything that happens after birth can change our gender identity. It is entirely separate from sexual orientation — apples and oranges.

Sexual orientationThe last step is sexual orientation, defined as consistent sexual attraction to either the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. Like gender identity, it’s probably formed by around the end of the second trimester or mid-third trimester of pregnancy, but it isn’t actually expressed until after the sex cycle springs to life and a child goes through puberty. During early adolescence, sexual attraction may flip back and forth… but by the end of adolescence sexual orientation is generally fixed and unchangeable. Bisexual individuals aren’t changing back and forth; their sexuality is “fixed” as attraction to both sexes, with a spectrum of which sex is most attractive. (I know, I know, that’s really confusing, but I can’t help it.) Sexual orientation is also an involuntary biological response, and there is no evidence that anything that happens AFTER a baby is born can impact sexual orientation. It is separate from gender identity – again, apples and oranges.

So here’s the whole thing. Chromosomes direct the internal sex organs, which direct the outside sex parts and the brain sexuality. All those things together direct gender identity (expressed by about age 3) and sexual orientation (expressed around the end of adolescence.)

Human Sexuality

The diagram looks pretty straightforward, right? But it isn’t. There are a lot of things that are confusing… especially if we haven’t taken the time to think them through. And for the most part as a society, as parents, as teachers, as churches, we haven’t taken the time to think them through. So let’s touch on some of the puzzlers.

Involuntary Responses

I’ve used this term a couple of times now, and some of you may be getting mad at me because you think I’m saying that we are sexually programmed robots. You may be thinking, “I’m married, and when I see a pretty woman I have the CHOICE of whether to respond to her or be faithful to my wife!” And that’s absolutely true. And yet, you did NOT have control over whether to be attracted to your wife (or the pretty girl) to begin with. You just… were. So the attraction itself is involuntary, but you have control over what to do with it.

Involuntary biological responses are the things our bodies do without us “telling” them to. Our brain breathes for us while we’re asleep… triggers a cough if something gets stuck in our throat… regulates our temperature… and sends us to the bathroom (and MILLIONS more things), all without our conscious thought. We have NO control over the involuntary response getting started, but have at least a little bit of control over what to do with it. So… if I’m in church, and drink too much coffee and need to go to the bathroom, I can probably wait until the end of the sermon. But I couldn’t wait until next Sunday!

That’s what is so hard about telling LGBTQ people that they can choose whether or not to act on their sexuality. It’s a hard enough sell to get young straight kids to wait until marriage for sex… and we know that church kids fare the same in this area as everyone else. But telling a gay teenager to NEVER have sex with who they are actually attracted to is like telling yourself to never again go to the bathroom. Eventually, something has to give, and all the faith in the world isn’t gonna prevent a serious mess!

Delayed Expression

Things that are put into place at one time, but expressed later are also confusing. It seems for all the world like they are HAPPENING at the time that we first SEE them; but in truth the “happening” is long gone, and all that is left is for the trait to show up. There are many examples of this – simple things like eyes that start out blue and then end up brown, or hair color that is blonde in the toddler years and turns dark by adulthood. We say, without hesitation, “Just like his Mom’s hair did!” without another thought. It can also happen with much more serious things – like Huntington’s Chorea, a progressive, fatal disease which is genetically determined before birth, but shows absolutely no symptoms until adulthood. Another example, more pertinent to sexuality, is the size of the outside sex parts. These things are determined before a baby is born, and there isn’t anything after birth (barring injury or disease) that alters them. But they aren’t EXPRESSED until puberty… because before that it just isn’t yet time.

That’s how it works with gender identity and sexual orientation. Our bodies are miraculous packages, designed to provide what we need at just the right time… and so we express our gender identity and our sexual orientation at the right time, even though they were set in place while we were being formed in our mother’s womb.

In my opinion, this is the heart of the arguments about sexual orientation and gender identity being a “choice.” The age that we SEE a young person declare themselves to be gay or transgender is usually in the teen or young adult years… an age when kids make choices that are often rebellious ones. But the reality is that the only choice occurring is when and how to REVEAL their identity or orientation to others. The actual event happened long before, and has been internally “known” by the person for a very long time. But like my friend in the opening paragraph, they’ve been blending in, trying to figure out if they are the crazy ones or if everyone else is! Imagine, just for a moment, how lonely that must be. And imagine, just for a moment, whether you might finally get fed up, and just bare yourself to the world in whatever way you feel like… not particularly caring at the time if it makes others uncomfortable.

Timing is Everything

Another puzzler – and a big one. In between the formation of the baby’s outside parts in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the formation of the brain sexuality in the second/third trimester, there are hormone surges. These hormone surges can and do impact brain sexuality… but the outside parts have already been formed and are irreversible. This means that the chromosomes, internal sex organs, outside sex parts and brain sexuality may not “match” in the way that we humans (who have somewhat arbitrarily defined “normal” as what we see happening most often) expect them to. A baby might have boy sex parts on the outside, but the part of the brain that controls sexual orientation may be attracted to boys rather than girls. Or a baby might have girl parts on the outside, but a hormone surge impacts the brain at the precise time that gender identity is put into place, and that young child knows without a shadow of a doubt that he is a boy, regardless of what parts are on the outside. Why? Because his brain says so.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the very core of your brain was telling you that you were a boy, while the parts of your body you can see look like girl parts. And then, imagine that everyone you know kept saying you were a girl. Even though your brain KNOWS that you aren’t. Imagine that your parents correct you, over and over again, reminding you that you’re a girl. And they are the people who feed you and take care of you, and love you, and you have absolutely no concept for how to reconcile what they are saying with what you know inside. And then, imagine that a famous preacher that millions of people listen to – like, say, Dr. Franklin Graham – referred to transgender people as “sexual predators and perverts.” Try as I might, I cannot put myself fully in that place… but even the attempt leaves me in a cold sweat. Is it ANY wonder that transgender teens and adults face an astronomically-high rate of depression and suicide?

Ancient History

We’re almost done. Hang with me for a final, hugely important concept: what humans USED to know about sexuality. Here’s the diagram of what was known about sexuality when the Bible was written:

Ancient Culture

That’s it. That’s all they had, all they knew. See a penis? It’s a boy. Yay! Our family name will continue! He will grow up strong and tall, have children and grandchildren! Praise God!

No penis? It’s a girl. Bummer. Well, maybe next time. Meanwhile, let’s teach her to cook and maybe she will bear children for someone else..

End of story.

Over time, we learned more about sexuality, and we began to add in things… but the ancient history understanding was so deeply ingrained that we just sort of stuck the other things in around our old way of thinking. So now, our understanding all too often looks kind of like this:

Ancient Culture Amended

It’s like a house with a whole bunch of additions and extra rooms, but the proportions are out of whack. It reminds me of when Jesus chastised his followers, saying, “You can’t put new wine in old wineskins.” Sometimes – most especially for followers of Christ – you have to be willing to blow up your old way of thinking and let him make something totally new out of the rubble.

Now, don’t brand me a heretic just yet. Not unless you know me well enough to know my deep love for Scripture. Not until you understand that I have memorized and kept current over 350 verses. Not unless you know that God’s word gets into me, changes me, transforms me. Before you brand me a heretic, just think for a moment about this beautiful passage:

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west. (Psalm 103:12)

When the psalmist penned this, he thought the world was flat. So for our sins to be removed as far as the east to the west, he probably imagined as, I don’t know… maybe 2000 miles. That’s a long way. And when scientists started to realize the world was round, they caught LOTS of flack from people defending the Bible. But over time, we’ve learned to reconcile the two. We’ve realized that if the psalmist thought the world was flat, that didn’t mean that GOD thought it was flat! It just means that God (for whatever reason) decided to use simple human beings to speak through. He could’ve just floated the Bible down to us, but he didn’t. So the human perspective is, apparently, worth the risk.

And now that we understand a round world, what has happened to this passage? Is it rendered useless? NO — It is even better! Because now we understand that in our round world, you can NEVER get from east to west! Now we realize that our sins aren’t just cast 2000 miles away from us; no, the distance is infinite. Immeasurable. Further than we have the capacity to understand. We could walk around and around and around the earth… and never, ever catch up to them. How cool is that?

So, friends, that’s what I think is happening with human sexuality. You think it’s an abomination? Not me. I think it’s an unfolding miracle. I think God allowed our simple understanding of male and female for long enough… and now, he is ready to blow our minds with the width and length and height and depth of human sexuality.

In closing, let’s return to Franklin Graham. He is quoted as saying, “Gender identity is what an individual ‘feels’ their identity is regardless of the biological reality.”  (www.thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, Feb. 6, 2016)

If you follow an ancient historical understanding of sexuality – if we are fully defined by the parts on the outside, and nothing else – then that is a true statement. If you take a pre-scientific understanding of sexuality, add on a few rooms, and call it done, then that’s a true statement.

But, if you choose to follow that thought process, know this:

It is medically unsupported and biblically unaddressed. The Bible never, ever says, “God created them male (which means a penis) and female (which means a vagina.)” No, we humans added our ideas of what was meant by male and female. Not God.

If a world-renowned leader and evangelist chooses to use the term “biological reality”, then it’s reasonable to expect him to have a sound understanding of what biological reality is. To fail to do so is misleading, inaccurate and irresponsible. It isn’t faith; it’s cowardice.

Fear keeps us enslaved in Egypt, while faith urges us toward the promised land. Fear worries that a human scientist will discover something that will knock God off his throne, while faith looks deeply into the telescope AND the microscope. Perfect love casts out fear… and gives us the courage to look at people and things we don’t understand with eyes wide open, ready and eager to see what God will blow our minds with next.

Remember our young transgender teenager from the opening lines of this post? I don’t believe she’s an abomination, or a mistake, or a sexual deviant. I don’t believe she’s a pervert. I don’t even believe she’s abnormal. I believe that she’s a creation of God. I believe that she is an important part of his revelation.

I believe that she is an unfolding miracle. Open your eyes and your heart, if you dare, and see her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People and Parts and Chromosomes

[This post originated several months ago when I got up on my soapbox on Facebook. It seemed to resonate with people, led to a radio talk-show appearance, a local newspaper article, and eventually to this blog. It keeps reappearing, so I decided to repost it here.]

June 2, 2015

For the beloved Mama Bears, raising your LGBTQ children with tenderness and ferocity, this is for you.

For Tomm Zorn who committed suicide last week, and all the courageous transgender folks out there trying to find your path, this is for you.

For my many Christian friends who are struggling to understand while remaining true to your faith, this is for you.

For those angry and inconvenienced by the media attention, who prefer posts of what you had for dinner over the plight of children killing themselves, this is not for you.

When faced with the choice between passionate speech and wise silence, I’ve never had the sense to keep my mouth shut. Which explains why I’m dumb enough to make a “Caitlyn Jenner Post.” Here are a few points I would like to share from a recent Grand Rounds presentation that I gave at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger, followed by some general opinions.

Our sexuality is a lot more than the “parts” that show on the outside. It is made up of our chromosomes, our brain sexuality, our internal parts, and our outside parts. The chromosomes direct the formation of our inside parts (ovaries and testes) and sexual differentiation of the brain. The brain and internal sex organs make neurotransmitters and hormones that impact each other as well as forming the outside parts. Most of the time those things match — outside parts, inside parts, brain sexuality and chromosomes. Those four things combined together establish, likely before birth, our sexual orientation (who we are attracted to) and our gender identity (whether we believe we are a girl or boy).

Here’s the rub. The external parts form very early in fetal development (the first trimester) but sexual differentiation of the brain much later (second and third trimester). Hormone surges can and do occur throughout the pregnancy… so a fetus can TOTALLY be born with a female brain but male outside parts. Or with a male gender identity but female attractions and mannerisms. There’s a tremendous amount of science available, and over the next weeks and months I will begin sharing what I know.

In ancient history, all that mattered were the outside parts. But now that we know all that we know about what’s going on inside our brains… now that we know about chromosomes and hormones… now that we know that people can honest-to-God be born with parts and brains and genders and attractions that don’t match… could we maybe just stop long enough to think about that?

If I woke up tomorrow with guy parts, that would seriously mess me up. Or if someone told me I had to figure out how to be attracted to women in order to be “normal”… well, it just wouldn’t happen.

And you guys out there… what if you woke up tomorrow with big old boobs and no dude parts? Or what if you straight guys had to figure out how to be attracted to one of your “bros” and how to not be attracted to women in order to be considered normal?

I’m not trying to be offensive, I’m just saying… THINK ABOUT IT. That would be really difficult. And lonely. And scary. We might hide from the world… or act out… or do crazy things to try to draw attention away from that part of us. Or we might get depressed, or start drinking, or doing drugs. Or kill ourselves.

We know that men who are paralyzed, women who have mastectomies, or people who suffer a mutilating injury are still a man or woman — even if their “sex parts” are absent or dysfunctional. Why? Because the sexuality of our brain and the chemicals it produces and the hormones raging through our bodies (given that I’m a menopausal woman, the term “raging” is quite appropriate) are more important than the outside parts. That’s just the truth.

And as a Christian, that doesn’t threaten my God OR my Bible. He absolutely created us male and female… but what that means is a heck of a lot more complicated than checking the parts below the waist. What makes us male and female is infinitely, gloriously, divinely, beautifully complicated. It’s the reason that after 24 years of marriage, Mike and I sometimes communicate like we are the same person, and other times like we come from different planets. We aren’t “typical” — not by a long shot. I love pro football, took a charge from him on the blacktop basketball court on our first date, cry at least twice a week and think out loud. He loves to cook, is a librarian, thinks about things for, like, 2 months before he speaks them out loud, and loves his alone time.

Sexuality is complicated. Human beings are complicated. That’s because we were created by a God that is way bigger than we can ever begin to imagine. If He had required the perfect design and the perfect people, Genesis would’ve been a very short story. But guess what? Us humans screwing up His design of the garden, of our humanity, of our relationships, and of the whole world was NOT a deal-breaker for Him. Instead, He continued to love us and pursue us and demonstrate compassion. He even made CLOTHES for Adam and Eve to help them with their embarrassment in the garden!! Who does that??

The point is, we don’t always know nearly as much as we think we do. We can misinterpret science, and we can misinterpret the Bible, and we can misinterpret each other’s intentions. And we can really mess each other up in screaming about how messed up everyone else is. But really, we are all pretty messed up… and we are also all pretty cool. Every one of us are walking around bearing the fingerprints of God.

So I think it’s up to you and to me how we respond to things we don’t understand. We can respond with anger and fear and ridicule, or we can respond with compassion and respect and a genuine desire to learn and understand. Our choice of response reveals our character and faith, and history will judge how well we did…

My Journey: Michael Alan

Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same. –Flavia Weedn

I ran into a friend recently, who asked, “Where have you been? I haven’t seen you in forever!”

We caught up for a few minutes and parted ways, but her question stuck with me. You see, it’s been a strange couple of years… and people who have known me for a long time aren’t quite certain what’s happened to me. Some days, I’m not sure either!

A few years back, I went through a period of healing from a destructive, abusive relationship from my teenage years. Coming face-to-face with my own neediness, stupidity, naivety and stubbornness was painful. Ugly.  Humiliating. I understood, for the first time ever, the true meaning of the phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” I understood how life can turn on a dime… how just a few missteps can so easily turn you into a statistic. Someday I’ll write about that healing journey, but for now it serves as the context.

Fresh off that time of self-examination and healing, my perspective had shifted. I had gained a new understanding of the depravity of humanity… a new appreciation for my own inner strength… and a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

But I also experienced a new hunger… a longing for a God that perhaps I didn’t know nearly as well as I thought I did. I began to wonder how much of my faith had been of my own making – shaped and controlled by human hands, for human consumption. Words from the prophet Isaiah lodged themselves deep into my soul and refused to let go:

The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes. He trusts something that can’t help him at all. Yet he cannot bring himself to ask, “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” (Isaiah 44:20)                                    

I began to see some aspects of my faith differently. There were striking similarities, for example, between my faith walk and my career path. Success at work, and leadership at church were achieved in much the same way. It wasn’t any particular behaviors that were troubling to me, but the overall pattern.  The big picture. My faith journey was feeling kind of like a spiritual Mount Rushmore: impressive rocks to look at… but most definitely shaped by human hands.

After all, what good is a god made in my own image?

I began to pray for a glimpse of God that hadn’t been packaged by humans for the maximum emotional impact. I wanted to let go of my own control-freak mentality, and instead adopt the spiritual equivalent of floating on my back in a pool of water… allowing his current to take me wherever he chose. I immersed myself in the Bible and in prayer… and I prayed for the courage to relinquish control.

It was a good prayer but, in retrospect, a rather dangerous one. The water I visualized floating in? Turns out it was actually the deceptive calm at the top of white-water rapids, and I was already being swept away by currents far stronger than I could’ve ever imagined!

white water rapids

Enter Michael Alan, stage left.

Mike was at that time one of 24 pediatric residents that I taught as part of my job at a teaching hospital. He had completed medical school, and was in his final year of training to become a pediatrician. He was smart, funny and talented. He had been accepted into a pediatric gastroenterology fellowship. He had a great work ethic, a wicked sense of humor and a very bright future.

And he was gay.

I’d known he was gay for a couple of years. He didn’t hide it, but was understated. We had a good relationship of mutual respect. And yet, there was a barrier there. I began to realize that I held him at arm’s length… kept things intentionally superficial… steered away from anything that might lead to “that” subject. I felt like I was on guard. In retrospect, I think I was subconsciously waiting for the pervert to pop out.

As Mike neared the end of his residency, at the same time that I was experiencing a renewed spiritual perspective, my internal assumptions began to gnaw at me.

Why did I assume that because he’s gay, he must be a pervert? Why did I feel as though getting too close to him would compromise my faith? Why was it such a surprise that a gay person could be one of the best, brightest, most responsible residents I’d ever taught?

It became readily apparent that his character didn’t match my assumptions. Which led to more questions.

Where did my assumptions even come from? What did I know about homosexuality from a biblical, or scientific, or sociological standpoint? What did I actually believe… and why? Who did I learn it from… and were they reputable? Had those I listened to formed a studied opinion, or had they listened to someone else?

I realized that my beliefs were a mish-mash of tradition, impressions, upbringing, culture, and borrowed beliefs. I’d skimmed a Bible passage here, a scientific article there. Overheard a conversation here, half-listened to a sermon there. I had trouble remembering what I’d heard from a talk show versus a teacher versus a pastor. Somehow, it had all formed itself into a belief system… but an unintentional, poorly-formed one.

It wasn’t nearly good enough; the human being in front of me deserved far better than that.

And so I began to intentionally examine the issue. (My eventual biblical, relational and scientific understanding is another story for another day.)  And then, just a couple of months before Michael Alan graduated, I asked if he would be willing to share his story, with no agenda on my part other than to listen and learn. He said yes. We met at a local pasta restaurant. We were both nervous, joking too much, laughing too loud. Eventually, though, we began to really talk… and really listen.

That sacred encounter is forever etched into my soul. His vulnerability, as he shared seemingly simple stories that had never before been spoken. His courage, learning to navigate through life with very little guidance…  and with his heart intact. The practicality of learning when to remain silent, even when he longed to be fully known by others. The emotional strength to lead a double life out of necessity. The hurt of rejection… the fear of confrontation… the loneliness of isolation.

I confessed that much of my impression of gay people was what I saw on TV, from lobbyists or demonstrators. He confessed that much of his impression of Christians was from televangelists. Neither of us felt well-represented by those groups of people.

Although he wasn’t plugged into Christian circles, he was nevertheless aware of what they said about people like him. He tried to avoid them when he could. He felt their disgust, their condemnation. He assumed they accurately represented God.

He assumed that they accurately represented God.

I will share more of Mike’s story over time, since he’s only the most amazing young man on the face of the planet. But for now, I have some questions.

Who is able to represent God? The Pope? The Session? The Board of Deacons? The seminary graduate? The Sunday School teacher?

Does it require a doctorate?  Graduation from a specific theological institution? A 2/3 vote from the congregation? A denominational policy statement?

And what am I to do when my two greatest heroes of the faith — both Christians, both with deep reverence for God’s word, both with lives that speak clearly of their love for Christ — reach different conclusions over this subject?

I don’t pretend to speak for God. I think it’s one of the most dangerous, arrogant, nearly-blasphemous things we can undertake. But I CAN tell my own story and give my opinion of what it means.

I asked God to reveal himself to me… for a glimpse of him that wasn’t contrived, or man-made, or controlled. I had no idea what I was asking for, but I believe that my prayer was answered. God revealed himself in the eyes and heart and courage and vulnerability and grace and humility and love of a young man named Mike.

Despite my promise to talk to Mike with no agenda, I subconsciously believed that with enough love and compassion and grace, I could change him. Or that God would change him through me. But see… that isn’t what happened. Not to me, nor to thousands of people world-wide who have had a very similar experience, when they have finally had a genuine relationship with a real-live, honest-to-God gay person.

As we shared that day, and many days since then, I felt the whisper of what I believe to be the voice of the Holy Spirit:

Listen. Learn. Love.

Be transformed.

In my opinion, the shifting that is occurring within the hearts and minds and souls of people all over the world isn’t an agenda, or an organized political movement, or a liberal takeover, or a hijacking of Christianity, or the work of lobbyists.

I believe it is the movement of the Holy Spirit. I believe it is God revealing himself, through people like Mike. I believe it is God asking us to listen rather than talk… to learn rather than teach… to be changed ourselves rather than to change others.

So to answer my friend’s question… where have I been?

Shooting the rapids. Having the most exhilarating, terrifying, peace-filled, joyous, laughing-till-tears-stream-down-my-face time of my life.

And I will never, ever be the same.

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.

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