The Pharisee and the Monster

It was in 7th grade that I learned to be a Pharisee.  The 8th grade boys began to question my relationship with a particular girl.  They wondered if I ever did inappropriate things with her. The thought had never even crossed my mind.  Thinking on my feet, I proclaimed that it was wrong to do such things and that I respected woman and would save that 2nd base stuff for marriage.  I learned that I could use religion and the Bible to pile on guilt to get them off my back.  I could also gain the respect of all the girls and youth leaders in the telling of this story.  I was such a good Christian young man. An example and leader.

I was different from the other boys growing up.  I knew it and hated it!  I wanted so badly to fit in with the guys.  I know now that what I was seeking was a connection.  Then I just saw it as a need to have a best friend.  I wanted a buddy.  Someone whom everyone knew was my best friend.

Brene Brown defines connection this way :

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

I was on the hunt for this.  I wanted this kind of connection, with another guy.  As much as I wanted it I never felt truly accepted or able to find my in.  I saw them relating with one another and I could never figure out what made their connection so tight.   Was there something wrong with me?  I’m too needy? Sensitive?  I wanted to be invited and included. I’m sure at times I was, but I never felt as though it was enough.

Early on I found myself in a quandary.  If I hung out with the girls too much I would be called a faggot .  I didn’t want to be rejected by they guys and seen as something that definitely felt derogatory. (even though I didn’t know what that was).  I would try to join the team and would always get picked last and teased for my lack of athleticism.   I became a constant observer of how other people perceived me.  I had to keep my secret.  I had to be someone I wasn’t to fit in.

There were certain urges and desires I noticed that other guys had towards girls.  Their attraction to them seemed to be innate and at times out of control.  I would say all the same things they would but not feel the same way.  I learned to lie and fake it.  My arousal would not be in thinking about girls but about guys.  Was there something wrong with me? Was I was broken?  Am I a monster?

It was very easy to decide who I would be.  I didn’t drink, smoke and was committed to no sex before marriage.  I didn’t swear and listened only to Christian music. I went on mission trips, got involved in my youth group, played guitar and eventually led worship for my high school chapel. My identity revolved around doing the right thing according to the Bible. The alternative would be to expose the monster I believed myself to be.  No one can know about the real me.

I felt myself unworthy and broken.  It seemed to me that when my friends started dating that a significant portion of their seeking a connection with a girl was based on their level of innate attraction to them.  I saw the guys around me do ridiculous things for girls and assumed that much of that was fueled by this built in natural sense of wonder and amazement they had about a beautiful girl they were chasing.  I wished I felt that way about girls.  No amount of trying or praying for my attractions to change made any difference.  I had to learn how to live with my secret. I didn’t want to be gay.  So I faked being straight.

As I recount my years growing up in church, christian schools and my 18 years of ministry as a Pastor I have a lot of questions. Sometimes I wonder if everything was a lie.  Was it all just a cover up?  Did I cling to religion to avoid being a monster? What was my true motivation?  Was it to honor God or to not let anyone know the truth about me? Am I that diabolical? Did I really love Jesus or just hide behind him?  If this is true I really am a monster.

Over the years the Pharisee in me has lost a lot of his influence.  I learned and observed along the way that kindness and compassion were necessary for people to feel accepted and that they belong. This is what I longed to feel and if I couldn’t feel it I would help others feel that.  Nevertheless, all the good things I had stored up and people I have helped seemed pale in comparison to the confusion and hurt I have caused.

Here are some of the things I heard others say.

“How can you call yourself a Christian and be gay?”

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“The Bible says”

“We’re praying for your salvation and deliverance”

“God has hardened your heart and turned you over to your sin”

“you are going to be held accountable for your actions”

I have to preach a sermon to myself these days.  The message of Jesus is clear that I am loved and accepted unconditionally.    EPHESIANS 2:8-9 “For it is by grace (undeserved kindness) that you have been saved (the wrong in my life does not have the power to condemn me) ,through faith (I do believe that the cross demonstrates God’s offering of forgiveness) and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works (what? all the good I have done doesn’t make me better?), so that no one can boast (Pharisee!)”.

ROMANS 8:1 “There is no condemnation (no more shame) for those who are in Christ Jesus”

Who is the Pharisee?

What is the Monster?

 

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Let’s just say…hot tub

“Our Church leaders will be holding a meeting soon to discuss what to do about this.”

“We will be coming out with a public statement on our stand.”

“They have an agenda you know.”

My ears perked up as I sat in the YMCA hot tub overhearing two men discuss the “issue of homosexuality” in the Church.  Prior to coming out I had been a part of these conversations with my church leadership too.  We had heard that some churches in the area had decided to put out a public statement that homosexuality is in fact a sin.  They wanted it to be clear to all who attended their ministries their theological position.

I leaned in and asked these guys to pardon me because I couldn’t help but overhear.  I wondered if I could ask them a few questions about the conversation they were having.  They were very polite as I inquired about whether they knew anyone who was gay.  The larger of the two men said “yes, they are nice people and very welcome in our church”.  I inquired whether they felt that a LGBT person would feel comfortable coming to their church after making such a point to make sure that everyone knows that it is a sin?

Essentially the conversation led them to saying that “the Bible says that it’s wrong”.  In return I stated that the Bible says many things and declares a lot of behaviors and actions as sin. They had no idea that I had been a pastor for 18 years and that months prior I had just come out to my wife, family, friends and church.

“You are correct that the Bible has many things to say about sin” I said.  “For instance, it has very specific things to say about gluttony and being overweight”.  I felt like we were having a fun and respectful banter so I went there. “Sir, you  are obviously not taking the best care of your body and one could claim that you are abusing the temple of the Holy Spirit”.  The Bible does say that it is gluttony to overeat.  I grabbed my belly and referenced my behavior of overeating as well.  I asked how they would feel if when they went to my church they read our public statement about obesity.  I asked how they would feel if the pastor made constant references to to obesity being sin. How many times would someone have to quote scriptures about gluttony and hand out weigh down workshop brochures before ascertaining that you aren’t good enough to belong?

Let’s just say that homosexuality is a sin.  I wonder why some people feel that their first response is to quote scripture.   Is this the appropriate response?  Declare the line in the sand? I just want you to know that I see wrong in your life when I compare it to what I read in the Bible.   How can I politely say that I can see see “sin” in your life too. Is it completely appropriate for me to point it out to you?  Especially when you haven’t spoken to me in years. Do you just want to speak your mind or do you want to also listen and engage in conversation?

There is a new tension as I live in between two worlds.  This past year I have attended a church where I know their “theological position” on LGBT issues.  It also happens to be one of the sister campuses to the church that I helped start.  While there I seem to be constantly assessing whether people are talking about me.  I wonder if this is where I am to belong.  Is it possible as I engage further someone may raise contention with me being openly gay.  Will that be good for me?  Will that be good for the church? Do they want me?

I’ve also visited several churches that are “open and affirming” to gay people.  There are gay couples in the congregation and LGBT folks in leadership of the church.  In this particular denomination there are even pastors who are openly gay.  I wonder about belonging in this context as well.  I’ve always felt a sense of participating in resolving injustice.  To be a part of a church that had these conversations 20 years ago about homosexuality makes this issue seem a moot point. Nevertheless, would this be a healthier option for me where i’m not worried about whether i’ll be accepted for my orientation?

The conversation about what the Bible says and what it means to be a gay Christian is a hot topic these days.  I know I have some decisions to make as far as how I would like to position myself in that discussion.  Will I be someone who engages people in the conversation or will I watch as others do it?  All I know for sure right now is that I have decided that I will tell my story.  I was a pastor.   Being a pastor will always be a part of me.  I long to point people to Jesus, and, I am gay.

Sympathy versus Empathy

DISCLAIMER:  This post will make more sense if you watch both of the videos I’ve posted.   In total they are about 23 minutes long.

Prior to coming out, my emotions and feelings often felt like they would betray me.  If you watched Brene Brown’s video The Power of Vulnerability you hear her talk about numbing emotions.  That’s what I did.  The best way to describe it is that I kept them in a place where no one could see them.  Eventually much of my feelings were dim compared to how I perceived others in their experience.   I saw people lose themselves in laughter, tears, joy and sorrow.  It was a rare occurrence for me to be moved emotionally.  I believed that something was wrong with me.  I experienced significant conflict in that I longed to feel more and yet guarded myself from my feelings.  I think people who did feel close to me just assumed that I was stoic, cool, calm, collected and unavailable at times. I secretly wondered if people could see the pain inside me. Could they tell that I was numb and hiding and protecting my feelings and emotions? I convinced myself and possibly others that I was just a stereotypical male who didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve.  The bottom line is that shame caused me to hide many of my deepest feelings and emotions. More on shame in another blog post.

My mom has told me a story about me when I was young.  She was giving my brother a hug and I stared from across the room.  She called me over so she could hug me too.  I wouldn’t come to receive the affection she wanted to give me.  What is that?  How did that distance from emotions and connection develop in my life?  I’m still trying to figure that out.  Was it simply from an early age that I understood myself to be different?  How did I know intrinsically that I couldn’t or didn’t want to share my feelings?  I don’t know.

I wished that I could feel more deeply.  Instead of following my heart I acted the way I knew I was expected to.  I had to tune into people’s expectations of me.  I could understand other people’s feelings and knew how to respond but I did not know empathy.  I knew what it looked like but not what it felt like.  I resisted being moved by other people’s emotions.  I longed for someone to perceive what was going on in my head but never dared to express my true thoughts.

Coming out and finally speaking about my sexuality opened those floodgates and I filled buckets with tears.  It was scary.  I would tear up at the simplest expression of kindness to me. My emotions were let out and so close to the surface.   My first year out I had landed a job at the local Chevy dealership and shortly thereafter one of my dear co-workers went through something very tragic.  Her ex-boyfriend took a knife and stabbed himself to death in front of my co-worker and his daughter.  Every time I thought about this tragedy I began to well up with tears.  Once Kairee came back to work I could barely look at her without being flooded with emotions.  I would see her across the room and notice that she was emotional and I would tear up.  I felt myself coming to life.  I let other people see me cry.  I walked miles in the dealership parking lot.   I would throw on my aviators, walk and let myself cry.  I cried with people who love me.  I was a mess and something about it felt really great.

Several months later a friend of mine reached out to me and wanted to see me after she had heard the news of divorce and my coming out.  She was a close family friend and my assistant youth pastor for a year in my last youth ministry position.  She had told me that when I invited her to come to work with me at the church she was so excited. She thought that maybe she could finally really get to know me.   When we sat across from one another at Applebees she stared me in the eyes and just said “Robb, I’m so sorry” and we both burst into tears.  She said that now she understands why it was so difficult for her to get to know me.  It all made sense to her now.  She saw the real me because I was no longer hiding.  I have nothing to hide any longer.

Experiencing empathy from others has been a key to my healing and to me accepting myself.   So many have expressed what I know to be sympathy and very few have climbed down the ladder to empathize.  Knowing how this salve works on ones soul it becomes a valuable commodity in relationships.  You value those who will not shame you further and work to connect their feelings with yours.  It is also something to practice in life as well.  It’s a true vulnerability that is an essential part of good friendship and developing the connections you long to have with others.

Click here to watch Brene Brown’s Video on Empathy versus Sympathy!

 

There’s nothing left in the closet!

October 3, 2013 I told my wife, parents, brothers, closest friends and the leadership of the church I was pastoring that I am gay.

My greatest fear was that once people learned of my secret they would treat me differently. I knew people would and they did.  A Pastor friend of my said “I get it Robb, it’s like you have had these helium balloons you’ve been trying to hold down your entire life and you’re tired.  You can’t do it anymore.”    He was so right.  I had to tell the truth no matter how great the fear was.

This year has been an incredible year of reflection and shame reduction. How did I get here?  I’m 39 years old, divorced with three children.  What will I do now?  What will I do after working 18 years for the Church? How do I live in my current state of hating myself because I believed I was broken?   I wondered how I would change after the truth came out.  Did I create so much trauma for myself that my personality and passions in life would dramatically shift?   I headed into a new vulnerability that whatever the cost I had to be who I am.  I am gay.  I did not choose to be gay. I am not ashamed of being gay.

To my surprise, I am still the same person with my passions and personality intact.  Coming out, telling people that I’m gay, the pain of divorce, the loss of relationship with people who don’t know how to love and be-friend me has changed me so much.  However, I am still recognizable to those who know me and love me.  I’m still me.  The major difference is that now I’m open and unashamed of what I had kept a secret for decades.  My favorite response this past year comes from my dad who I overheard on the phone to one of his friends.  He said “yep, Robb is here in Florida for a few days.  Yep, he’s doing good, same ole Robb, Just a little different love life”.

This year I’ve dealt with many responses to my coming out.  “I’ll call you later Robb to set up a time to take a look at your furnace” and no return call. .  Learning later that the guy who had fixed my furnace issues in the past stated that he couldn’t help me because he wasn’t going to condone my lifestyle.  I wonder if he has an interview process for all homeowners?

I’ve also had 3 former students who were a part of my youth ministry call me up and say “Robb, we know what’s going on and we want to let you know that we love you. We don’t think any differently of you and we want to take you out for a beer and talk”.  They spoke about how I had always been there for them and they now wanted to be there for me because I was hurting.

I experienced the fear of discrimination for the first time as I started my first ever full time job outside of working for the church.   I laughed internally as I heard my fellow sales staff correcting one another about their foul language around the guy who was a former Pastor.  I thought to myself, I wonder what’s going to happen when they learn that I’m gay?  Will they treat me differently?  Will I lose my job?

For years the mentioning of homosexuality had caused so much anxiety in me that I would avoid speaking with people about it whenever it would come up in conversation. It was just too close to the truth.  A don’t ask and don’t tell (or even talk about “it”) mentality is prevalent among the religious culture of West Michigan.  People know that I’ve come out but are paralyzed in how or what to do or say. In some circles I’m brave and in others a coward.  People who believe that being gay is not a choice believe that it took great courage to come out.  They have told me that they are proud of me.  Those who believe being gay is a choice see my announcement pointing to a despicable addiction and will continue to pray (and have told me they are praying for this for me) that I renounce my choice to be gay.  Or that I will not enter into any relationship with another man.  Consequently, it is this second group that I feel most compelled to influence.  I get it.  No one knows what to do with the Pastor who comes out and says he’s gay and divorces his wife to live openly as a gay man.   It’s not that common.

A young man I met this year was scrambling to come up with a plan “b” for where he was going to live for fear that when he told his parents he is gay they would kick him out.  After meeting with him several times he made a decision that he was going to tell them.  His report of their unconditional love was remarkable. Unfortunately, this is not always the story as other’s have told me the opposite response from their parents and families.   Another friend reported that as he shared the news with his family his mother exclaimed “you have ruined my life”.   There is nothing more devastating than being rejected by someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally.

I’m not sure what this “telling” will do.  But, I hope that maybe in me telling my stories, engaging in some conversation, that I may be able to help bring some consideration to some of the ways in which our beliefs and actions about homosexuality cause so much damage to the name of the one who loved unconditionally and to the soul of the homosexual.