Asking Questions, Having Conversations

The following is a post I wrote for CenterPeace: providing safe spaces for men and women who experience same-sex attraction. For years, CenterPeace and their director, Sally Gary, have been striving to help create and increase conversations. I was honored to write this piece and am glad to share it here on my blog, as well. I would encourage you to check out CenterPeace’s website and blog.

(My post is one of series of posts written by fathers. Beginning today (Monday), Sally will also be sharing guest posts written by mothers.)

Continuing with our guest series from fathers of LGBTQ daughters and sons on Fridays, here’s a post from my friend, Paul Mathis.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. (According to my children, this only seems to be heightened as they grow older.)

I like to think I am a kind person; a thoughtful person; a caring person; a smart person. I know that I truly do want to be supportive and encouraging. But sometimes, in my quest to speak words of kindness, I mess up and say something that just sounds awful.

Have you ever read those posts on social media? Something like “Ten things never to say to a foster family,” or “Never say this to someone whose family member is deployed.” I read those and realize that I have said virtually all of them. Always with the best intentions. Always because I truly do care. But sometimes, I just don’t have the right vocabulary to speak into certain situations.

So when my son came to me several years ago and said he was bisexual (and later he would tell me he was gay), I did not know what to say. I came up with some non-committal response that ended with me telling him I loved him.

There is so much I wish I knew at that point. I had been raised in a traditional, conservative denomination that taught homosexuality was a sin. Although I never participated in any boycotts, I was quick to put down Disney and other media companies for their “liberal, homosexual agenda.”

Yet through all of that, I had several friends who were a part of the LGBTQ community. They welcomed me and I welcomed them. We spoke freely and openly. I can truly say I loved counting them among my friends.

But there were so many times that I would either say the wrong thing thinking I was being funny or supportive; or I would just not say anything at all because I was afraid anything would be the wrong thing.

One thing I never did: reach out to someone who could help me have these conversations. However, that was not just because of my fear; I did not know anyone with whom I could have those discussions.

My son approaching me made me so aware of my perceived inability to have these conversations. I did not know what to say. I was afraid to say anything wrong so I defaulted to saying nothing at all. I was woefully unprepared.

I wish I could go back and tell my past self that I was not unprepared. I loved my son. I still do. And it was okay for me to tell him that I was confused, uncertain, scared, and whatever else. It was okay for me to say that because I could also say without hesitation that I loved him. I loved his siblings, as well, unconditionally. I repeated that as often as I could.

I wish I could go back and tell myself that it is okay to question what I had been taught and to be okay with not having an answer. I wish I could tell myself to continue on the journey. I wish I could tell myself that I did not need to feel alone on the journey.

Here is what I cannot do: go back in time. Here is what I did do: reach out to Sally Gary and ask if I could have a conversation.

I remember well the day I texted Sally and asked if I could talk to her and say things that might make me sound ignorant and hateful. I just did not have the language I needed to have a conversation about sexual identity and orientation with my son.

Sally was welcoming. She was patient. She was kind. She was loving.

In the ensuing six years, my relationship with my son has grown closer. More than anything else, Sally taught me that I actually was prepared to have this conversation with my son because I loved him. Sally has taught countless people that conversations based in love are such a vital piece of building and maintaining relationships.

Here is what I continue to do: encourage every parent who has a question to make use of CenterPeace and all its resources. First and foremost, love your children. Second, know you are not alone. Third, continue engaging in conversation based in love and covered in prayer.

Sometimes, I say the dumbest things. But sometimes, my child hears me and knows he is loved.

I am grateful for CenterPeace and Sally and the conversations that have started because of this ministry. I am grateful for the visible support Sally has been to countless others. So when she lost her hair due to her chemo treatments I wanted to do something as a visible sign of support. My shaved head has inspired many questions. Each time I answer, I get to talk about Sally and CenterPeace!

An Open Seat, Just For You

This week’s post is written by a special guest: my daughter, Rheannon. She is a freshman in high school this year, active in a local service organization, theater, and her church’s youth group (as well as Freedom Fellowship which she talks about in the post).

Many of these thoughts have been circulating in her mind for a long time, but the sermon we heard at our church yesterday brought some clarity and focus. I hope these words will encourage you as they have encouraged me. 

Yesterday at church my preacher talked about the kingdom of God, and how hard it was to understand how church was really supposed to be. He spoke about how the kingdom is not where you are comfortable – church is not the place where everyone looks like you, thinks like you, believes what you do.

Church is where you are different, and challenged, and uncomfortable.

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This picture was taken at Freedom Fellowship, a satellite church of Highland. I’ve been going to Freedom for six years – longer than I’ve been at Highland. Every third Saturday night, Freedom does a special worship service and serves communion. Since I’ve been going, I’ve stood at the end of the line and given a hug to the people passing through the line.

I have always felt the closest to God in those moments. I’ve felt the presence of God on earth every time someone new passes through and return the hug for the first time.

Freedom’s ten year anniversary was a HUGE event – a big neighborhood party. Everyone who had been at Freedom in the beginning spoke about all the special things Freedom offered, and shared their favorite memories. Terry St. Pierre spoke about communion and how it started. Then, he talked about my hugging and how much it had affected the people who experienced it.

Then, we broke bread. And I gave hugs like I had been doing for almost half my life.

The woman featured in the picture had been going to Freedom for a couple of weeks at that point. I’d seen her in worship, uncomfortable at first, and then getting into it as the weeks went on. Every time I saw her raise her hand in worship, it brightened my day in amazing amounts.

I believe God put her in Freedom for a reason. I believe God sent her to Freedom to experience his love.

I believe she was sent to feel how worthy she was in the kingdom.

This would be the second time she had taken communion at Freedom. The first time, I’d given her a short hug and let her move on quickly like I did with a lot of newcomers.

That night, though, I gave her the biggest hug I could manage. I tried to relate to her God’s limitless love for her.

And I received more from that hug then I gave. She gripped my neck and gave everything right back to me, and I’ve never felt more blessed.

Because God’s kingdom comes when people give up their safe zones for the unknown without fear. God’s kingdom comes to earth when we allow ourselves to love without boundaries.

I believe that Freedom is the closest I will ever come to heaven on earth, simply because there is no judgement and no hate. Freedom gives me a chance to experience things churches strive for.

We welcome everyone.

We do not judge.

We do not leave anyone out of what they want to be a part of.

We do not assign certain jobs to certain people based on sex, or race, or social status.

Freedom is a place where the things others people say and believe no longer hold any truth or importance and you can believe what God believes about you and be affirmed by dozens of people that know how important you really are.

Today, we’re celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr., a man who fought for equality and respect among all people.

One point made in church yesterday was that a big part of the civil rights movement was the assembly of church. MLK was invited to talk with many churches, to have dialogue with the people who believed what he believed and who wanted to help.

Church has always been important to people who wish to bring peace among humans. Church is the place that people could be together and not be afraid.

And suddenly, church seemed to stop being that place. It began to become a place where we pretended to be perfectly okay to fit in. Church became a place where I no longer wanted to be.

But Freedom Fellowship? That’s where, at my most uncomfortable, I felt the most peace. Freedom is where I began to believe in the power of church again.

And there will always be an open seat, on any pew, on either side of the auditorium for anyone who wants to be there.

There is always a place at any table, inside or out, where anyone can sit and share a meal before worship starts.

There is always a place in God’s kingdom for anyone who has ever existed.

There is always a place for you.

Update: I forgot to give photo credit to Zach Snyder. The photo was taken on Freedom Fellowship’s 10th anniversary celebration.

Your Name Is Dulcinea

Over the weekend, I was able to see a production of Man of La Mancha. It is a powerful story based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. While there are several layers to the story, the main plot revolves around Don Quixote’s love and admiration for the woman he calls Dulcinea. When Don Quixote sees Dulcinea he knows he has found the perfect woman of virtue and beauty. She has done and can do no wrong.

The only problem is that Dulcinea is actually named Aldonza, and instead of being a virtuous woman she is a tavern wench. She can see nothing beautiful in herself or in her life. Throughout the play, Don Quixote continues to call her Dulcinea and speaks to her of her beauty and worth. And throughout the play, Aldonza continues to argue with him and tell him that he is unable to see the truth.

Near the end of the play, she boldly declares that she is and always will be Aldonza. Yet shortly after that, she is at the bedside of Don Quixote as he takes his last breath. When his companion, Sancho, looks at the woman on the other side of the bed, he calls her Aldonza. Then she stands up and declares, “My name is Dulcinea.”

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All of us have reason to doubt our own inner worth or beauty. All of us have seen the ugliness in our lives, because we are the ones who have done it. We have committed atrocities. We have spoken terrible words. We have given in because we were too weak to stand strong. We have relapsed. We have lied. We have cheated. We looked where we said we weren’t going to look.

And others have confirmed our opinions. We have been reminded by people in our lives of all of our failures. Sometimes, our parents have told us we will never amount to anything. Or they have derided our dreams as unrealistic or fanciful. Sometimes, our romantic partners have told us that we are just good enough and we are lucky they stick around. They cheat on us and tell us if only we were better it would not happen. Or they beat us and tell us if only we would act right. Sometimes, our friends remind us of all the mistakes we have made. Especially when we are trying not to make them anymore. They ask us if we think we are better than they are. They tell us we really won’t last doing the right thing. They tell us they will see us back again.

All of these messages pile up and crush us underneath their weight. No wonder so many of us think, and maybe even say out loud, that we will never be more than Aldonza.

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You are amazing. You may not know it, but you are. I know you have messed up. I know you have made some poor decisions. I know you have failed.

But that doesn’t matter to me. You are amazing.

You are beautiful. All those imperfections that you notice when you look in the mirror do not stand out to most people. I know you think they do, and that is hard to overcome.

But you are beautiful. You are amazing.

You are a hard worker. I see you trying to do the right thing in each situation every day. I know you are tired. I know you are overwhelmed. I know you do not have a 100% success rate.

But you are a hard worker. You are amazing.

You matter to me as a person. I know others have cut you down. I know others have told you they don’t like you. I know those messages hurt down deep. But your life is important. Who you are as a person is important. You have gifts and talents to offer that no one else can. You have knowledge and experience that no one else does. You have something I need. And hopefully, I have something you need. Let’s figure that out together. I know what other people have told you.

But you matter to me. You are amazing.

I have heard the stories. I have witnessed the mess. I have walked alongside some of you through the darkest moments of humanity. I know why you struggle. I know why you doubt. I know why you question.

I know why you think less of yourself. But remember this: You are amazing.

Your name is Dulcinea.

Being Equipped, Encouraged, and Empowered at the Intersection of Faith and Sexuality

This post was shared on CenterPeace’s blog last week. I am grateful for our family’s opportunity to participate in this event. 

One weekend in October, many people are going to gather and discuss issues surrounding faith and sexuality. CenterPeace is hosting the e3 Conference (equipped, encouraged, and empowered) from October 27-29 at the Highland Oaks Church of Christ in Dallas, TX. Many Christian scholars from across the country will join families to share stories and information and discuss how to hold conversations about faith, same-sex attraction, and gender identity in loving, Christian ways.

I am excited about this conference for many reasons. As a Christian and student of the Bible, I truly am seeking to increase my knowledge in areas of interpretation and application. I have questions that I thought I always knew the answer to, and maybe I did. But I mostly just accepted what was said to me without genuine, honest searching.

As a recovering alcoholic, I have experienced many preconceived ideas about addiction and recovery—many of them negative. Through conversations and spending time with people, I have been able to teach people that the experience of an alcoholic in recovery is not what they thought. This same lesson has applied to me as I have had the opportunity to talk to Christians who are attracted to members the same sex or who do not identify with their gender the same way I do. I have learned that many of my preconceived ideas were wrong—and often negative. I have learned to love and have conversations; with the purpose of that dialogue being to learn and become shaped more in the image of Christ.

As a parent, I have wrestled with what it means to have a child acknowledge his own same sex attraction. I have learned the blessing of having people with whom to hold conversations. I have had a lot of questions. I was blessed to have people and resources close by. I know that many parents either do not have or are not aware of the resources available to them.

The e3 Conference can be a great step in the journey for parents, siblings, children, or friends who love someone who experiences same sex attraction or has questions about their gender identity.

If you have questions about the intersection of faith and sexuality, this is the conference you need to attend. Come and find conversation partners. Come and ask questions. Come and learn about resources.

Come and be surrounded by the love and peace of Jesus.

Your Story Matters

I have enjoyed being part of a blogging challenge over the past 30 days. I hope you have enjoyed reading as much as I have enjoyed sharing.

I love the opportunity to share my story. I am grateful that I am in a place now where my past experiences can be a blessing to others. I am truly honored every time someone asks me to share about my journey—where I have been and where I am going.

And I have learned something along the way. I have come across many people whose stories are much more tragic than mine. People have dealt with far more serious issues than I have. And I am grateful when they share those struggles and experiences with me.

I have also come across people who feel as if their story is insignificant. They feel as if they  have not suffered enough. As I come to the end of this blogging challenge, I want to say this:

Your story matters.

Your story is a blessing. You may not know realize how. I might not be able to tell you exactly why. But someone, somewhere needs to hear your story. Whatever you have faced or overcome or endured or maintained, your story is your story. And it is important.

This challenge is ending. My story-telling will continue. I hope you will join me.

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