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!
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.
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.